Pearson Arms Apartments, #212
Today marked a week since Cordelia’s release from the Neuro-Psych Unit at St. Matthew’s Hospital. Vision remnants lingered, now vague, a constant reminder of what she had seen.
Suffering. Death. Pain. People in need of help. So many.
Like never before she understood her role for the Powers That Be. Angel wasn’t the only one in need of redemption. Vocah put her through hell to make her realize it, but this was her mission, too.
Out with the old selfish Cordelia, in with the new. There’d be no more whining about visions interfering with her social life—much.
Was there a 12-step program for turning over a new leaf ? This was the perfect time to start fresh.
Kinda no choice. Their office was toast—of the charred variety. There was practically nothing left to salvage from their office or Angel’s apartment.
Wesley had been lucky to survive the explosion. She’d seen it in one of the endless visions. A bomb set by Vocah in the weapons cabinet. Wesley running for the back exit. The blast that knocked him off his feet.
A billowing ball of flame burst through the windows on the street above, the fire consuming everything in its path.
Angel! Heading straight into danger.
She remembered screaming. It was the only thing she could do. Scream. Again and again. Responding to the terror, and unbearable pain as more visions followed. One after the other. Each worse than the last. Until they stopped abruptly just a vision or two away from leaving her a permanent resident in a padded cell, or worse.
The memory of the visions had been so vivid in that moment.
Seeing Angel there hadn’t been a surprise, not because she knew he would save her, like he always saved her. Because ultimately, the visions were intended for him and she was now his conduit to the Powers that Be.
She knew to count on him to save those people. Whether he knew it or not Angel could count on her, too.
That went beyond the visions.
According to Wesley and that old prophesy scroll Angel was supposed to become human one day.
He needed to build connections to the world, to want things from life. Kinda ironic now that everything he owned was rubble.
There had been no visions this week as if the PTB knew they all needed time to recover. They deserved a little downtime. As far as Cordelia was concerned that didn’t include putting her feet up with an old book or a scroll like some people.
Boredom’s perfect solution was tucked into her bed— sadly not Jude Law— and also technically not in the bed itself, but stuffed deep between the mattress and the box spring.
An invitation for the Angels Investigation team to attend a party.
Knowing that if Angel managed to get his hands on the invitation it would somehow mysteriously disappear, she had hidden it where he would never find it.
Ever since they set up a temporary office at her place and Angel moved in, he had shadowed both her and Wesley like a momma bear guarding her cubs. Phantom Dennis didn’t mind the extra company and there was plenty of extra space for Angel to hang out now that he was homeless.
A party was just the thing to give Angel a little human contact and to take his mind off everything else. Wesley was up for it. He was mostly healed by now and ready for a break from all of the time he was putting into translating that prophesy scroll.
There was just one tough nut to crack.
Having waited for the right moment to strike, Cordelia took the invitation out of its hiding place and informed Angel that the three of them were going to attend David Nabbit’s party.
Glancing up from his book, Angel barely raised a brow. He answered a little too calmly, “We can’t go to a party right now,” as if it should be all too obvious that it was for her own good.
Hah. She was so ready for that.
Resistance was fully expected. Before he bothered to list all the reasons why it was better that they not go out, she felt the hackles rising up. “We can. In fact, I already said yes."
Round One winner: Cordelia Chase.
Would her old fogey vampire boss get hostile about it or go all remote and silent? Either way she was prepared. A zing of adrenalin slammed into her pumping her heart faster, giving her goosebumps, anticipating his reaction.
But then, he had always given her goosebumps. Not something to think about right now. There was a party at stake.
When Angel didn’t bother close the book he had been reading, she knew which way this little challenge was going to go. Any lenience in those brown eyes hardened into an unyielding shell. He didn’t budge from his place on the couch. The line of his mouth tightened a fraction telling her he was planning to be mule-headed about it.
The old opening cheer routine steadied her over-excited nerves.
“David called a few days ago after he read about the explosion in the paper. He was thrilled that we’re all alive—well, those of us who are supposed to be—so he invited us over to celebrate.”
Angel’s gaze slid down to the invitation in her hand.
“Staring at it won’t make it burst into flames.” Cordelia let out a snort. “The last time I checked vampires didn’t have heat vision. Stick with the Dark Avenger routine you know so well.”
Teasing him just came naturally. The look he was giving her suggested that his will was made of steel, impenetrable to any form of coercion. She smiled at him. Slowly, that dark stare softened and Angel’s mouth quirked up just for an instant before he licked at his lips and momentarily looked away.
Before she could secretly celebrate that little triumph, Angel closed the hardback book with a loud clap startling her. Not a good sign. He wasn’t backing down. “Find a way to tell him we’re not going.”
Mystified by Angel’s need to avoid life, even people like David who were so obvious with the hero-worship and wanting to be friendly, Cordelia wanted to shake him. True, he had vampire issues, but those things weren’t going away any time soon. The whole point of this party was to help him learn to be human—if only a little.
“No way! David’s a really sweet guy for someone who has no life. He even paid our medical expenses.”
Angel’s eyebrows shot up. “What!”
“What? Oh, crap!” That was supposed to be a secret. Caught off guard and flustered about screwing up, she blurted, “Well it's not like we can afford it.”
“Cordelia, that’s my responsibility. Nabbit is a client,” he barked back clearly upset, “not your personal banker.”
Letting him bluster, Cordelia crossed her arms in front of her and waited out the storm. No surprise that Angel had issues about it. Hence the not planning to tell him part.
Well, too bad!
Ticking the list of expenses off on her fingers, she wasn’t about to back down from that decision. “Add together two days in the ICU for Wesley and another three for me in Psycho Central. Not exactly cheap, pal.”
An angry half grunt, half growl emerged from his throat making her tingle. It took a lot to rile Angel up. A thundercloud looked less stormy than he did.
Continuing, Cordelia reminded, “We need every cent we’ve got and then some to rent a new office.”
His book slammed down onto the coffee table rattling the glass candleholders. They chinked together as if in protest. “That’s not David Nabbit’s concern.”
Just like a man thinking he had to do everything for himself. Or was it vampire territoriality? Whatever! It was it was stupid.
Angel leaned forward, elbows on his knees, hands folded, fingers steepled against his lips like he was stopping himself from saying what he really wanted.
There he was closing himself off again. Getting broody about it. Frankly, Cordelia preferred him pissed off. At least then he was interacting with her. Moving closer, she reached out, her fingers brushing his shoulder.
“Friends help each other out. You can pay David back if you want to—not that he needs it.”
Angel’s hands unfolded, dropping down to his thighs as he shifted back to look up at her. It was impossible for him to stay mad at her. “Fine. Next time, check with me first.”
Nudging his knee, she grinned playfully. “The next time I nearly get shipped off to the funny farm? Sure, I’ll do that.”
He grasped the side of her leg stopping her teasing nudges and pulled her across to sit beside him, voice low and serious as he started to censure her. “Cordelia…”
“Now about that party. We’re the guests of honor in an unofficial sort of way. We have to go.”
“It’s not like David can tell anyone he hired you to track down a blackmailer who photographed one of his little visits to Madame Dorion’s demon brothel.”
Angel’s scowl faded to resolve and broody silence. She figured he was well on his way to accepting the fact that he wasn’t going to get out of going to this party. Until he asked, “What if something comes up? You could have a vision.”
Okay, so he had her on that one. “David would totally understand that the mission comes first.”
As he relaxed back into the cushions Cordelia guessed that Angel was mentally calculating the number of days since her last vision. Not counting Vocah she was way overdue and they both knew it.
Barring an unexpected apocalypse there was no way he’d get out of this party. Crushing that one little kernel of hope she said, “We can always get there a little late. These parties sometimes go on all night.”
Trying a little encouragement, she said, squeezing his hand, “It’ll be good for you. If it makes you feel better just think of this as one of those trials you have to survive on your way to becoming human.”
Soapy water sloshed in the sink as the dish mop swirled over the surface of the plate. Once clean it floated beneath running water to be rinsed off. Cordelia stood by with a kitchen towel waiting for the handoff. She talked animatedly with Phantom Dennis and with Wesley who was out of sight in the dining room.
“…artists bazaar is over, but that doesn’t mean I can’t track down that vendor. I paid cash for those art supplies.”
Angel paused against the kitchen threshold watching the way the moonlight shone in from the small window above the sink. Light and shadows caressed her smooth golden skin in ways that made his fingers itch to trace them.
It was just his artistic eye, he reasoned quickly, after catching himself ogling her feminine curves. Cordelia had said something about art, so naturally his mind had wandered in that direction.
He’d stayed away most of the day. Gone out even when the only way he could move around was in the safety of the sewers. He needed to work off a little aggression after Cordelia cornered him earlier. Seeing her standing there Angel realized he was still feeling it.
Anger tugged at his insides. He knew she meant well. But did she constantly have to push him into things he wanted no part of?
As silent as a panther on the hunt he moved into the kitchen. He stood practically right behind her, the temptations of warm skin and moonlight still dancing in his head.
Ignoring the fact that he was crowding her against the sink, he leaned in close. “Have any visions while I was out?”
“Aaack!” Cordelia’s hold on the wet plate slipped. It plummeted fast toward the counter.
Angel reacted instantly. He grabbed her with one hand yanking her hard against him to hold her steady and out of the way. The other hand whipped around her waist saving the plate a moment before it hit the hard tile. The rhythm of her heart skyrocketed. He felt it fluttering like a trapped bird against his chest.
As recognition hit, her stiff shoulders relaxed and it bothered him when he noticed the way they fit perfectly together. His splayed fingers had found a tiny patch of bare belly, silky smooth, warm beneath his touch. The instant heaviness in his groin forced him to move.
“Visions?” High-pitched irritation snapped in Cordelia’s voice as he carefully set the plate down and took a step back. “Yes! I’m having one right now. I see me, actually. Doing…this!”
Whirling around Cordelia flicked at him with the damp towel. Her peeling laughter as she chased him around the kitchen table was a sure sign that she hadn’t noticed anything. When they reached the corner again, Angel let her catch up and didn’t even bother to dodge out of the way.
“Don’t you know by now not to sneak up on me?” Cordelia flicked the towel again.
Angel tried to look sorry about it, but the truth was that he liked watching Cordelia’s reactions. Sometimes he thought she sensed him coming. This wasn’t the time to dwell on the reasons why or why he always noticed. He had more pressing concerns. “So…no visions.”
“Hmm. Let’s see. Not writhing on the floor. No killer headache. Nope. Guess I’m completely vision-free. Tough luck, champ.”
A scowl settled over his face when she added, “Looks like you’re not getting out of David Nabbit’s party.”
Was it evil of him to hope someone was planning an apocalypse?
Wesley, still sitting within earshot, offered up his own opinion on the matter. “He is a client. Attending his party is the least we can do.”
Silently admitting Wesley might be right, Angel walked out to join him at the table. Cordelia followed and instantly made him regret that he’d brought the subject up. For what must have been the hundredth time, she tried to convince him that he should just give it a chance. Considering what it was like when he came to the party here at her place, he couldn’t see another one going any better.
“You compared me to a giant black hole of boring despair.” Angel remembered what she’s said to him after it was over.
Cringing at the reminder, Cordelia said, “Yeesh! That was the old me. The new me thinks you have much more potential.”
A smile lit her face, eyes sparkling. “C’mon, Angel, it won’t be so bad. Rubbing elbows with the rich and—well, richer.”
“That doesn’t interest me.” Somehow he knew this wasn’t getting him anywhere. It didn’t matter that he would prefer to stay here with a good book.
That soft little pfft warned him that his excuse was unacceptable. “Nothing that involves being mingly interests you. Angel, you’re too cut off from life.”
Well, in his defense, he was a member of the undead. He didn’t get a chance to point that out before Cordelia swept that tidbit out from under him.
“If you’re ever going to be human you have to start learning to live a little. That’s what Wesley says and I totally agree.”
This was Wesley’s idea? It didn’t even take a death glare in his direction. Angel could hear him squirming in his seat as Cordelia added, “I’ve made it my job to help you with that.”
Wesley cleared his throat twice before they looked his way. He was still a little rough around the edges, his skin raw in a few places, but healing. “Cordelia, perhaps you shouldn’t expect—”
One sharp glance from her was like the sting of a whip cracking against his skin: instantaneously effective. A change midsentence follow a pause, “—for me to finish this translation tonight.”
“Gosh, I was so looking forward to reading…” Not hiding her underlying sarcasm she read Wesley’s legal pad notes, “whether Falafel demons suck your brains out before or after you’re dead.”
Shuddering, she said, “That’s all Silence of the Lambs. Do you ever wonder where these writers get their ideas?”
“That was fava beans, not a falafel. And it was the victim’s liver rather than the brain,” corrected Wesley completely distracted by her little tangent. “Though it is quite certain that books the public view as fiction are in actuality based upon—”
Cordelia made a time out sign by crossing her hands into a ‘T’ to stop him. “Whatever. You’re missing the point.”
“Which is what, precisely?” asked Wesley pulling his legal pad a bit closer.
“Brain suckage. Eww!”
Her nose crinkled in disgust, but made her look adorable. Angel pressed his lips tight, but the corners of his mouth curled upward anyway. He waited patiently to resume their discussion about the party.
This might be a good time to escape, but right now Angel wasn’t planning on running away from Cordelia or her good intentions.
Wesley smirked evilly as he said, “Many cultures consider brains to be quite the delicacy.”
Angel figured that she probably thought he was going to let her steamroll him now that he owed Nabbit money.
“Lobster is a delicacy. Escargot is a delicacy. Brain is NOT on the menu—or at least it shouldn’t be.”
He was still the boss around here—well, technically this was her place—but he was still in charge of the business. And he wasn’t about to let his recently released from the hospital employees put themselves at risk.
“Those things have a similar consistency to brain matter,” Wesley pointed out. “Though I expect the brain is full of more nutrients.”
As a businessman David Nabbit would fully understand that the wellbeing of his employees took precedence over a party.
“Like some brain-snacking cannibal is worried about getting his vitamins?”
Angel had finally come up with the perfect excuse. He felt almost gleeful about it. All it would take was pointing out their injuries to David Nabbit and he’d happily rescind that party invitation.
“Perhaps they just like the taste.”
When Cordelia glanced up a little hitch caught her breath. Her eyes widened a fraction showing her surprise. Yes, he was still there. Waiting. She might think there was no point in finishing their conversation about the party—because she thought she had him cornered.
Don’t jump to conclusions, kitten. Barely a thought it rolled through him like a tidal wave of anticipation.
“Well, um, now that everything’s settled, I’m gonna go soak in the tub for a while.” Promptly calling out to Phantom Dennis to run her a hot bath, Cordelia made a move to brush past him.
Angel’s hand shot out closing around her wrist. “Not so fast. We haven’t settled anything. The two of you haven’t been out of the hospital very long. We don’t even have an office yet. Nabbit will understand if we skip it.”
Cordelia tugged at the tight grip once to get him to release her. “But I don’t want to skip it. We deserve some fun!” Her foot stomped down on the hardwood just a fraction of an inch from his. Petulance or bad aim, he wondered.
Admittedly, he hadn’t stopped to consider that his plan might be selfish. The word ‘party’ had nothing to do with his idea of fun. Still, he was planning on sticking to his decision now that he had a plan.
“What you deserve and what is good for your are two different things.” Angel tried to sound sympathetic instead of smug. “As your boss I think it would be best if you two stay home.”
“Oh.” Cordelia’s shoulders slumped, but there was a glint in her eye that warned him of trouble just ahead. “If you really think you’re comfortable going alone. David will just have to give you one hundred percent of all that gratitude and attention.”
No! Wait a minute. She’d twisted his words all around. “I never said—”
“It’s really sweet of you to be so concerned about Wesley and me, but we’re really okay.”
Angel’s thoughts raced as he tried to change his tactics. “Well, then maybe you two could go after all. By yourselves.”
“The invitation is for all of us. Don’t wimp out now just because you’re scared to socialize.”
She thought he was afraid. That he was being a coward.
There was no cowardice involved whatsoever.
He wasn’t running away. It was just his concern for others. He was simply being considerate. He didn’t mix well with crowds.
Going to that party would just set him up to feel like—well, exactly like a giant black hole of boring despair. She’d certainly hit that nail on its proverbial head.
An irascible growl rumbled up as he defended himself. “I’m not wimping out. That’s not what this is.”
Cordelia’s beautiful face contorted for an instant of eye-rolling, lip twisting disbelief. “Coulda fooled me. I see it, I say it.”
Somewhere on the periphery of his vision, Wesley shifted out of his chair. His voice slow and steady as he said Cordelia’s name to caution her against continuing their argument. Even he could sense that she had her finger on some invisible switch that if flipped would push him one step too far.
“For a vampire, you're just a big chicken.”
Stone faced and furious he bounded of his chair directly in front of her statue still. A step or two was all it would take to crowd her back against the wall and tell her in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t anything of the sort. And the demon inside him was fully prepared to come along for the ride.
There was a slight possibility that she didn’t really mean it. Miniscule. That and only that saved her from his wrath. Just what he’d do when he reached her was anyone’s guess. Angel didn’t have a clue other than wanting to shut her up or make her take it back.
The temperature in the room dropped rapidly, lights flickering, the table legs rattling on the floor. Even Phantom Dennis sensed he was on the edge. Through the red haze crowding out anything but her Angel heard Wesley try once more. “Cordelia—”
She put up a hand to silence him handling Wesley while continuing to stare him down. Angel had years of practice controlling his demon instincts. This little spitfire wasn’t going to break that control. Deep down he knew he was overreacting to a barb that was ultimately meaningless.
Cordelia’s aim was perfect. It was his all too human pride she stabbed. “Don’t call me that again.”
Fearless, she quipped, “If the shoe fits. There’s only one way to prove it.”
God, she could be a bitch sometimes, and he wanted to respond in a way that would shut her up. There was only one way he could. “You’re right about one thing. Nabbit is a client with connections we don’t want to sever.”
The first spark of hope lit Cordelia’s eyes. He wanted to smother it out, punish her for manipulating him so easily.
No matter how well deserved it might be.
“This is business,” he added listening to the rapid tattoo beat of her heart when she realized she’d won. “I don’t have to enjoy it.”
“But you’ll come anyway?”
If she wanted a giant black hole of despair around, then, “Yes.” She would get one.
“I said I would.”
Hope turned to triumph. He watched the smile tugging at her lips and he knew he was right where she wanted him. “No changing your mind or backing out.”
Angel didn’t know what was worse. Being played—or letting her do it. “I won’t.”
An earsplitting squeal of delight followed. Cordelia threw her arms around his neck and hugged him. The sudden impact forced him to sway back, his hands reaching around to hold her in place in order to maintain his balance.
No sooner did Angel let the sensation of feminine curves and tempting warmth sink in than her soft hands pressed against his shoulders looking for release. “Eew! What exactly were you doing while you were gone?”
“Hunting demons. Tunnels are kind of busy during the day.”
Cordelia took a big step back. “Tonight, you get first dibs on the tub. Hope you like bubbles.”
They waited until Angel shut the bedroom door behind him before Cordelia let the gloating begin, but Wesley started a mental countdown.
Three, two, one…
Cordelia swung around to face him with a huge grin on her face. “Hah! Told you I could get him to agree to go. Time to pay up. You owe me five bucks.”
Not yet ready to concede, Wesley gave credit where it was due while adding a word of warning. “Congratulations on winning this round, Cordelia, but I’m afraid this isn’t quite over yet.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Wesley sat back in his chair and drummed his fingers on the table. His singed cheek twinged a bit when he gave her a half-smile. “I believe you left out a few important details about the party.”
Her glance darted toward the closed bedroom door. “Well, duh! Those can wait until tomorrow afternoon.”
“As late as that? Tomorrow is the 31st.”
Her voice dropped to a whisper. “The costumes are arriving by special messenger. Until then, your lips are sealed.”
“Certainly. I won’t say a word. I am in full agreement that getting out a bit will help Angel’s personal growth.”
Cordelia’s eyes narrowed as if she suspected a trick. “You still owe me five bucks.”
The chance of her having a vision today of all days was slim to none. Halloween was just that strange time of year when demons took the night off making it the perfect opportunity for the associates of Angel Investigations to party. Or, as the case might turn out to be, force their killjoy vampire boss to have an inkling of fun.
“I have to wear what?”
Cordelia leaned back an inch or two at the sudden roar. Maybe there was another way to phrase it. “Think of it as a uniform. Only everyone will be wearing something different.”
“Okay, so what? It’s a costume. Get over it.”
“You said nothing about wearing costumes.” Angel tried to make it sound like a deal breaker.
No way was she letting that work. Catching a glance at newspaper folded up on the coffee table, she grabbed the front page and held it up. “What’s today, Angel?”
He didn’t have to look, but since Cordelia was making a point, she tapped at the date above the headline. Instead of giving her the answer she wanted, he said, “Sunday.”
“The date, doofus.”
He knew where she was going with this. The stubborn vampire just didn’t want to admit it. Cordelia figured she could out-stubborn him any day, so she tapped the paper again and waited for a response.
“And that makes today…?”
“My day off.”
Cordelia’s jaw dropped as he turned and walked away. “Hey!” She ran after him as he headed into the kitchen.
Opening up the refrigerator, he pulled out a pint of chilled blood, lifted the lid and took a swig. He wasn’t as careful as usual and ended up with a blood moustache, but Cordelia didn’t even bat an eyelash.
As he licked away the thin trail of blood from his upper lip, she demanded, “Show me the vampire rulebook that says you can’t dress up for a party. Besides…you promised you’d come.”
“I never agreed to this, Cordelia.”
“Sure you did. I have a witness.”
“Witnesses can go missing,” he quipped darkly. Angel glared back as he took up a stubborn posture crossing his arms and making his shoulders and biceps look even larger.
“It’s not like you haven’t worn disguises for work. You wore that suit to get into Wolfram and Hart. And when you tracked that mobster you wore that ridiculous Hawaiian shirt of Doyle’s.”
There was a hitch in her voice before she lost her train of thought completely. Angel understood. She could see it in his eyes. He missed Doyle, too. The pain of losing him was still there. Close to the surface. Something they rarely mentioned. It was unusual for either of them to bring up his name.
A thickness closed up her throat. Unshed tears stung her eyes. Cordelia whirled around not wanting to see the sorrow on Angel’s face or the pity or the guilt. She walked back into the living room tasking herself with folding up the paper again. Leaving it in a neat little pile.
Cordelia heard the refrigerator door open and close again. There was no other hint of Angel’s movements until the couch springs gave way as he sat down. Another minute passed by before he spoke. No surprise. It wasn’t about Doyle.
“After Sunnydale I’m a little surprised that you’d want to dress up for Halloween. Not after what happened year before last.”
The comment seemed to come from a long way away through the sudden haze in her thoughts. Distractedly, she answered, “Ethan Rayne is not going to be at the party.”
Angel went quiet again.
The fight wasn’t completely out of her, but thinking about Doyle had thrown her off her game. Softly, she accused him, “You’re still trying to weasel out of this.”
“No. I’ll go. I said I would.”
Somehow, her triumph didn’t feel quite as thrilling this time, but it managed to wind her up enough to grumble about Angel’s dour response.
“Your enthusiasm is overwhelming.”
“Maybe I should tone it down.”
The television suddenly flared to life just long enough to notice Wile E. Coyote being blown up by a case of TNT before it went off again. “Dennis thinks you’re funny,” she offered up a translation.
“So why are you smiling?”
One of those beaming looks that always knocked him for a loop had chased away the shadowy sorrows filling her eyes. He responded likewise unable to resist the way it lightened his own mood. Even though chances were she was about to say something to make fun of him.
Cordelia shrugged. “This is just a one-time deal. It’s a good thing for you the PTB don’t consider tights and a cape a mandatory uniform.”
“Good thing,” he shuddered at the thought. “I might prefer being evil. Let’s just skip the costume. I’ll go as myself. Most of the guests will think it’s a mask.”
Angel vamped out and spread his arms over the back of the couch as he relaxed into the cushions. He seemed to think he had it all solved.
“That’s cheating. Not to mention a big fat bore for those of us who see you dressed like that every day. Besides—you can’t.”
The vampire fangs and ridges faded back into his human form. “Why not?”
She supposed Wesley would call this the start of Round Three.
“Um. Did I forget to mention that it’s a theme party? Since we’re a little short on cash David offered to send us some appropriate costumes.”
“A theme party. What kind of costumes?”
Saved by the doorbell. “I guess we’ll find out together.”
Eying the three sizable boxes made from handcrafted fiber, Cordelia could tell they did not come from the local costume shop. “He bought the good stuff. I knew I liked that little man.”
With the boxes arranged in a line on the dining room table, Angel and Wesley stood beside her while Cordelia opened up the envelope accompanying their costumes. “It’s a note from David. I recognize the handwriting from his checks…check.”
“Dear Friends—blah, blah, blah—enjoy the costumes—can’t wait for you to see my castle—blah, blah—wait…did he say castle? I thought we were going to his house in Malibu.”
Wesley looked at the original invitation again. “We are. The address is the same. It is a rather large house. And they do say a man’s home is his castle.”
“I prefer the term mansion, but if he wants to call it a castle, I can live with that.”
“Still thinking about prostituting yourself in exchange for David’s wealth? I seem to recall you—OW! What’s next, hair pulling?”
Retracting her curled fingernails from Wesley’s forearm, Cordelia hoped he got the point that that particular conversation was just between them. “No. Where would you get a lamebrain idea like that?”
Angel figured he didn’t want to go anywhere near that particular conversation. “What else does the note say?”
Reading, Cordelia skimmed through the chatty part of the note where David wrote about being excited to ‘hang with them’ again tonight. He reminded them of the last time when he popped in at the office and hoped they could do that again soon. The whole heroes fighting evil thing was just awesome.
“Here it is,” she pointed to one paragraph. “He’s turned the mansion into a castle for the party. It’s part of the theme.”
Wesley nodded and easily guessed. “Dungeons and Dragons.”
That’s exactly what the note indicated. “How’d you know?”
“The last time he came to the office David was wearing a purple cape and carrying a sword,” he reminded her. “The man is clearly obsessed.”
Cordelia shrugged it off. “He can afford to have an obsession or two.”
“You seem to know something about this game,” Angel said to Wesley. “What’s it all about?”
“Dungeons & Dragons is a popular fantasy role-playing game. I am by no means an expert on the subject,” he said hastily. Still, it was better than nothing.
Wesley explained that he knew some of the men in the Watchers Council gaming division. “It monitors such things in connection to public awareness. There was some concern when the game was first published, back in the 1970s I believe, that it was linked to cults and demon worship, but those reports were unjustified.”
Angel thought about the circumstances of their first meeting with David Nabbit. “Role playing?”
“Exactly what kind of fantasies are we talking about?” Cordelia caught on instantly, her gaze narrowing suspiciously at the thought of Nabbit's involvement with a demon brothel.
Holding up his hands to put a stop to their questions, Wesley explained, “No, no, not at all. Dungeons and Dragons includes no actual physical play.”
“Tell that to the guy who took pictures.”
Wesley stuttered over the words as he explained that David Nabbit and the other players who went to Madame Dorian’s Demon Brothel took their game a step too far. “It involves a set of multi-sided dice and a Dungeon Master, or Game Master, who acts as the game’s referee and serves as storyteller for the players’ adventure.”
So far, Angel hadn’t heard anything that shocked him. Though it still sounded more like an S&M scenario than a game considering those photographs. “So the Master directs the scenario.”
“Yes,” Wesley nodded completely unaware of Angel’s line of thinking. Fortunately, his next words got him back on track. “D&D originally derived from tactical war games played on a grid with miniature figurines, but it evolved to included players taking on the role of individual characters.”
“War games.” Angel realized just how far off base he’d been. He swiped a hand over his mouth to suppress his grin.
Cordelia’s nose wrinkled as she curled her mouth in disdain. “War games? What kind of a Halloween theme is that?”
Seeing that she no longer looked quite so gleeful, Angel nudged her with his elbow. “Problem?”
“No problem. I was just curious about our costumes, that’s all.”
Wesley gestured toward the boxes on the table. “I assume that we are intended to wear costumes based on characters typically found in the game.”
“These aren’t traditional Halloween costumes, then? No ghosts, goblins, unrealistic vampires?”
Cordelia smirked back at Angel. “A little sensitive on the subject?”
“They should at least get it right.”
“In the game there are hundreds of possible—uh—'monsters' is actually the gaming term. Including those you mentioned. Players take on the role of fighters, clerics, thieves and magic-users from a variety of races: human, elf, dwarf, halfling to name a few.”
Cordelia leaned closer to Angel whispering, “What’s a Half Ling?”
“A hobbit.” Wesley tried to be helpful when Angel had no answer.
Testing an Americanized version of what she assumed was a British pronunciation, Cordelia tried the word out. “Hob…hab…habit. Oh! I’ve got it—a habit—like a nun. Those things nuns wear. Oh, God, I hope he didn’t make me a nun.”
Angel continued to look confused. There were nuns in this game?
“No, it’s not a nun. A hobbit is a very small—never mind. None of us will be getting that costume tonight.”
“So what you’re saying is that people like David pretend to be fighters and nuns any old time. Not just on Halloween.”
Cordelia was silent for a moment. “What’s the point?”
“Unlike those of us who face mortal danger on a daily basis some people yearn for adventure that cannot be found in their own lives. They come to the game only with whatever their imaginations devise. Together they solve dilemmas, engage in battles and win treasure.”
Finally he’d said something that grabbed Cordelia’s interest. “Treasure! Now we’re talkin’.”
“It’s not real treasure, Cordelia.”
“Oh. In that case, refer back to my question.”
Angel made a move toward the boxes on the table. “We might as well find out what’s inside these things.”
“Buck up! This is bound to be fun.”
“Define fun,” Cordelia muttered not so certain any more that there was something in that box she wanted to wear.
War games? Who was she gonna be…Attilla the Nun?
Each box was labeled with a folded white card. Gold calligraphic lettering spelled out their names: Angel, Cordelia, Wesley.
They shuffled around so each stood in front of the box with their own name. Cordelia looked at Angel who was standing on her right. They both turned to Wesley since he seemed to be the most enthusiastic about it.
“Very well. I’m certain there is nothing to fear. It is just a game. One we won’t even be playing,” Wesley reminded them. “We are simply attending a party dressed as a common character.”
Flipping the card to view the inside script he read the word: Wizard. “Apparently I am human and a superior magic-user.”
“Um…how is that diff—”
Angel cut off Cordelia’s unfinished complaint. “Open the box.”
The box was packed into layers.
Labeled as Prop 1, the first contained a leather bound book with intricate scrollwork cut into the front cover. A simple Latin phrase across the binding easily translated as ‘Book of Magic’.
Wesley laughed sardonically. “Perhaps I can use this to start our new collection of references.”
They’d lost so much in the fire. Too bad this one was a toy.
Putting the book aside, he removed the woven fiber separating it from the layer below. It was a very long, grey beard made of realistic-looking hair.
“Oh, dear.” As he held it up to his face it curled down to his midsection.
The rest of the box included a hat and bright blue wizard robes that could be worn over his pants and shirt. Angel suggested he forego the beard, but Cordelia balked at the idea.
“No way. David picked this stuff out. You don’t want to offend him, do you?”
“Certainly not. This should be fun. Playing the part of a magic user.” He gave them a good-natured grin.
“Not much of a stretch. You do that now. Though I’ve gotta admit it’s going to be even tougher for you to meet girls with that thing on your face.” Cordelia patted his shoulder conciliatorily way and watched his smile droop.
Turning to Angel she nudged his costume box a little closer. “Your turn.”
“Why is it my turn?”
“Because…,” Cordelia didn’t really think explanations were necessary. When he kept staring, she rolled her eyes. “Because this is my apartment and I am letting you stay here while you are practically destitute.”
“Kind of like how you invited yourself over to my place?”
Cordelia thought about it. “NO, that was completely different. My apartment was invaded by an army of cockroaches with creepy antlers.” She demonstrated the antlers to Wesley for added effect.
“I gave you the bed.”
“Well, you’re getting a perfectly good couch.”
Having heard none of this before Wesley listened in for a moment wondering exactly when it was that Cordelia had lived with Angel. Though it seemed that it happened under emergency circumstances, it was interesting that it happened at all. He filed it away for one of his lunchtime conversations with Cordelia.
“Angel, might I suggest that you proceed. This will all move along faster if you don’t try to argue with Cordelia.”
A little smile crept onto Angel’s face.
“Pfft! I know a delay tactic when I see one.” Cordelia reached over and snagged the card off of Angel’s costume box. She flipped it open to read it and before they could look flipped it closed again.
After a dramatic sigh, she handed over the card. “I’m beginning to think David has no imagination whatsoever. First he makes Wesley a wizard—hello he may not be Willow, but he already knows real magic. Then he does this to you.”
Hesitantly, Angel flipped the card open. It read: Warrior.
“I could be wrong about the boring part. It could be one of those gladiator costumes with the short little skirt and Roman sandals,” she gave a hopeful laugh. “That could definitely be fun.”
His costume box was heavier than the others. The prop displayed in the top section lay diagonally and took up the entire span of the box: a sword and scabbard.
“That looks real,” Cordelia noted. Angel confirmed it as he picked it up, and removed its scabbard. He tested its weight and balance walking a couple of steps away to slice and jab at the air. “Cool—as long as you don’t go slicing and dicing David’s guests.”
Holding up the scabbard, she asked teasingly, “Does this look Roman to you? I guess David spares no expense with the props. He really does take this game seriously.”
Angel noticed that the sword was a standard Roman design. For a moment he wondered whether Cordelia knew more about his costume than she was letting on, but reconsidered. Though he had nothing to hide he wasn’t going to spend the night with the wind blowing places it shouldn’t.
Everything in the weapons cabinet had been obliterated with the explosion. It was fortunate that he had a few things stored in the trunk of the Plymouth. Nothing made like this of gleaming steel and laser precision designs across the upper end of the blade. It was almost too nice to use, which wasn’t going to happen, he reminded himself, since this was just a party and it was just a prop.
The reminder forced Angel’s attention to the rest of his costume. Cordelia discarded the dividing layer before he reached her side. He had to put the sword somewhere it wouldn’t break one of her vases or crystal decorations. Funny how she was very particular when it came to her place, yet he vividly remembered her carving up the linoleum on his kitchen floor.
“One leather vest,” she lifted it out only to complain about its weight. “Geez, it’s a good thing you’re stronger than an ox.”
“Leather armor. Nice quality.”
Cordelia reached into the box again. “Damn. No skirt. But on the plus side you do have a nice way of filling out leather pants.”
Behind her, Wesley practically choked on her name.
Guilelessly, she blinked, asking, “What?”
Deciding not to take it further, he walked back to his side of the table and pulled out one of the chairs to sit down.
Giving Angel a look that said it was best to ignore Wesley, she tossed the pants on top of the vest in his arms. He said nothing as she went back to the next layer of the box. He was quite relieved to see a costume that he could wear without feeling like a fool.
A warrior. That worked for him. Maybe tonight wouldn’t be so bad after all. Unless it ended up being all about people socializing, dancing and eating like every other party he had experienced.
Looking inside she found a pair of boots and leather arm braces. Angel noted that the boots looked to be his size. “Nabbit must be a good guesser.”
“Someone called asking for details on all of our measurements.” Cordelia saw the question forming on his mouth. How did she know these things? She raised a hand to stop him. “Maybe we should just save that story.”
“Another time, then.”
Cordelia tilted her head. “You know by ‘save that story’ I mean forget about it, right?”
That was one thing about Angel. He never forgot a thing. “For now. You have a costume box to open.”
“Since you were in cahoots with the clothier I assume you know what’s on the card.” Wesley reached across before she could get to it.
“No. The woman insisted that it was a surprise. Wouldn’t tell me a thing. What’s it say?” she asked Wesley half excited and half scared. She sent a prayer skyward. “God, please don’t make me a nun.”
“There’s very little chance of that ever happening,” Wesley muttered sourly. Then he realized as far as the costume went he might be wrong. In his normal pitch, he commented on the fact that he was given possession of a book and Angel a sword. Their characters were as close as possible to their real life roles.
He had to admit. “I doubt that you’ll be dressed as a nun. Surely David realizes that Angel would find it unpleasant.”
Angel knew the clothes wouldn’t bother him. He was used to crosses and rosaries. In the hands of a true believer they could be powerful, but Angel doubted that Cordelia wearing a costume would do much harm. But then nuns stirred up a lot of bad memories.
Wesley looked at the card. While he stared at it his face turned cherry red. He looked up a Cordelia and laughed out a loud blast of air. “Angel, I think it’s going to be an enjoyable evening, after all. We should take pictures.”
Without bothering to ask what was on the card Cordelia reached for the top of the box and flung it onto the ground. Peering inside she gasped at the carefully placed objects on the first layer. They looked like little bits of skin.
Angel seemed equally clueless. They looked to Wesley for answers. Gleefully he told her, “They’re ears.” He clapped a hand to his chest as though it might burst from the force of retained laughter.
“I’m a pointy-eared nun?”
“Definitely not a nun.”
“But I do have pointy ears.”
“Yes,” his grin split across his still flushed face.
Searching her memory for all things nerdy Cordelia thought she had it figured out. “I’m a Vulcan—like Dr. Spock.”
Chortling again, Wesley corrected her, “That would be MISTER Spock. I believe Dr. Spock specialized in infant psychoanalysis and would most definitely not be wearing this costume.”
“Give up the card, hyena boy.” She waggled her fingers until he placed the card in her hand.
Wesley propped an elbow on the table and tucked his hand under his chin. “Oh, they do say laughter is the best medicine. For future reference there are no Vulcans in Dungeons & Dragons.”
Cordelia concentrated on the card reading the words over three times to be certain. “What’s so funny? According to this I’m a princess.”
Coming down off the high of his laughter Wesley realized he hadn’t bothered to think about Cordelia’s reaction to becoming royalty for the evening. “Yes, an ELF princess.”
“Let’s talk again after you put on your ratty old beard,” she said shoving the lid back onto her costume box. “We’ll see who has the last laugh, bucko.”
“So we don’t get to see the rest of it?” Angel felt cheated.
For a moment it looked like Cordelia was about to snap at him, too. Walking straight past him toward her bedroom, she called out, “You’ll see it when you see me.”
Wesley couldn’t resist one last parting shot. “Call if you need help with the ears!”
The door slammed closed behind her.
Shaking his head, Angel admitted, “I haven’t decided if you’re very brave or have a death wish.”
Cordelia set the box on her bed. Carefully placing the lid to one side she lifted out the ear prosthetics and the supplies that went with it. “Put these in the bathroom, Dennis. I’ll need the mirror.”
The package floated away.
“What’s so funny about being an elf, anyway? They make toys for children. That’s kind of noble.”
After kicking off her shoes and climbing onto the center of the bed Cordelia tried out her character’s title again. “Elf Princess. Hmm. Princess of the Elves.” Positioning the box in front of her, she angled it between her legs.
“Princess Cordy.” That sounded way better than Mother Superior.
When the lights flickered she knew what Dennis was asking. She felt like a kid on Christmas Day. The guys had gotten some fancy props to go with their costumes. And she really hoped her surprise wasn’t a set of elf ears.
The guys would have to forgive her just this once if a little bit of the Old Cordelia took over. This was a party after all, and all part of the New Cordelia’s personal mission of helping Angel be a little more human.
“Let’s talk tiaras, baby.”
Reaching in she grabbed the woven barrier between layers and tossed it aside. Then, holding the sides of the box peered in.
It was a bag.
A tiny little bag made of silk that fit into the palm of her hand.
Looking at it for a few seconds, her mouth made a wry twist. “Pretty small tiara.”
The string loosened when she tugged on the tie. Poking a finger inside she saw that it came away covered in glitter.
“Pointy ears and body glitter. Talk about fashion faux pas.”
Her clock radio blasted for a full second.
“I know, I know. Just a costume.”
Dennis helpfully floated the next woven divider out of the way. The contents of the next layer started to rise out of the box. Light green silk so diaphanous it barely blocked her view was suspended in the air for her inspection.
“That’s too pretty to be packing material.” Cordelia tilted her head to the side to get a better look at it since her ghostly roommate was holding it at an odd angle. “Maybe it’s a shawl.”
She kept on bending over until her head nearly touched the bedspread. Making a swirling motion with her finger she directed him, “Turn it around the other way.”
The gauzy material billowed in the air close to the ceiling. When Dennis was done it was perfectly clear to Cordelia that it wasn’t a shawl. It was also perfectly clear that David Nabbit deserved to have his little cherubic cheek slapped.
“Not that kind of fantasy game—pfft!”
Cordelia straightened up and caught the gauzy material in her outstretched arms as the ghost released it. “You think it’s too late to request the nun costume instead?”
The lights dimmed slowly before brightening again. “That’s what I figured.”
Examining the remaining contents of the box Cordelia found several more scraps of similar fabric though these were slightly less diaphanous than the larger piece. She hoped there were instructions because there was no way either Waldo the Wizard or Fangman the Barbarian were going to see this.
Not if she wanted to go to the party. And she did. Boy, howdy! No matter that ‘Elf Princess’ was a nerd term for being way underdressed.
But it did come with a cloak.
Hopping off the bed she put the floor-length emerald cloak around her shoulders. It had a braided silk tie closure and two slits in the front for her arms. Perfect. Neither Angel or Wesley would have anything to complain about—not that it was any of their business what she chose to wear.
Cordelia gave the cloak a twirl and when she whirled back around she saw a blue box floating in mid-air. An uncontainable squeal filled the air. “I told you I liked that little man. Maybe I won’t slap him.”
A sudden knock on her door made her gasp. She grabbed the jewelry box and hid it behind her back. Angel cracked the door open enough to look inside. Cordelia pasted on a wide grin and scooted over toward the end of the bed to block his view.
The drive to David Nabbit’s Malibu mansion was unusually calm. Angel thought it almost eerie. He had expected the usual childish taunts when Wesley and Cordelia came face to face again. Instead, they provided each other with the briefest of compliments before heading toward the car.
Wesley stroked his long grey beard giving Cordelia the opportunity to comment on it. “You look very wizardly.”
“Thank you, Cordelia. That color is very fetching.”
Angel thought so, too. Her long hair had been swept up to show off her elegant neck and the adorable elf ears, but left it long in the back. The cloak was silk and finely stitched flowing down to the floor and covering everything but her matching boots.
Normally he didn’t pay much attention to Cordelia’s hairstyle or notice her shoes, but wearing a costume was a special circumstance.
However, he did notice her mouth. Quite a lot, actually. How could he not since she was always right there in his face about something?
Talking, always talking. Random flotsam he didn’t understand, advice he didn’t want, bitching about something she said he screwed up, lecturing when he took too many chances, or laughing and smiling in a way that lit up the room.
Yes, he’d noticed her mouth.
Those soft, warm lips he recalled from those few seconds when he thought she was making a pass at him instead of trying to rid herself of her visions. Right now they were pink and shiny. And it wasn’t just her lips. Cordelia had beautiful skin, but she’d done something to it. She seemed to sparkle in the light.
As they were getting ready to leave, Cordelia caught him staring a little too closely. “It’s glitter, dorkula.” Looking worried, “Elves must have glittery skin. I didn’t overdo it, did I?”
A hint of it sparkled in her hair, across her eyelids, and cheeks. “No, no, it’s…pretty.”
“Wow! Was that a compliment? Don’t strain yourself or anything if it’s so painful for you.”
Angel followed her out to the Plymouth. It was parked on the curb out front. Wesley was already in the back seat waiting for them. Holding the passenger door open for her, he commented, “What I can see is lovely, but you never did let us see the rest of your costume.”
“Didn’t I? Guess that will have to wait.” As Cordelia sat down she carefully kept track of the material of her cloak ensuring that it didn’t get caught in the door. “It took a little longer than I thought to get ready. We’re already late.”
He turned to walk around the car toward the driver’s side unknowingly giving her an eyeful. “By the way,” she said when he climbed behind the wheel, “nice pants.”
That made him grin. Angel didn’t particularly care for the stiff leather vest, but it fit close enough to his skin that it wouldn’t hinder him in a fight. He had to remind himself that this was just a party. There was going to be no fighting tonight. Just drinking and dancing and lots of people.
He brooded about it halfway along their thirty-five minute drive to Malibu until he noticed an uncharacteristic silence in the car. “Everything okay?”
He got the same answer from Cordelia that he had back at her apartment. “Peachy.”
“Sorry, was I ignoring everyone?” Wesley seemed to come out of his own personal fog. “I’ve been thumbing through this Book of Magic. It’s nicely done indeed. Several sections appear to be copies of various ancient texts. It wouldn’t fool a scholar like myself under close scrutiny, but certainly serves its purpose.”
Upon reaching the mansion they found that a valet service was provided for the evening. Angel turned over his keys to the parking attendant and then tried to find a place to put the ticket. His tight leather pants didn’t include pockets.
“Don’t look at me.”
Wesley took the ticket. He tucked it into his Book of Magic as they walked up the drive toward the mansion.
The entire house was lit up. They’d all seen it before, but now the modern glass and steel structure looked like it had been taken over by a Hollywood studio making a medieval adventure movie. “Wow, it really does look like a castle,” Cordelia recalled David’s note.
They found David Nabbit outside his ‘castle’ greeting the many guests that were coming up the drive. The familiar purple cape was there, but his casual clothes had been exchanged for a real costume.
Like Angel he wore a leather vest, though he didn’t fill it out quite the same way. He had pointy ears like Cordelia. A sheathed dagger was tucked into his belt. A pair of black pants came down just below his knees.
As she continued to let her gaze drift downward, Cordelia saw that instead of shoes, David was wearing a pair of hairy fake feet that were twice the normal size. “Who are you supposed to be…bigfoot?”
They hadn’t even said hello yet.
Their host took care of that. “Hi Cordelia. Hi guys! It’s really great to see you here. I don’t actually know most of these other people, but they seem to know me and they like parties.”
Angel reached around Cordelia to politely shake his hand. “Thank you for inviting us, Mr. Nabbit.”
“Call me David. We’re good friends now, right?”
Before Wesley could finish thanking him for the costumes and the unique props, Cordelia experimentally tapped on one spongy big toe with the tip of her boot. Never one to let something go, she asked, “So, um…what’s with the feet?”
David grinned causing his reddening cheeks to round out. “I’m a Halfling.” He bowed to them waving his arm with a flourish. Upon standing up, he winked at them. “At your service.”
“These costumes. Are they rentals because I was just wondering out of pure casual interest whether we were supposed to return them tomorrow.”
“No, they’re yours.” He explained that they might want to wear them again the next time they came over.
The three of them stared at each other in strained silence until Cordelia caught David staring at her ears. “Hey! You’re an elf!”
“Elf Princess,” she countered. “Why are you so surprised? Wasn’t this your idea?”
“Hmm, I told my administrative assistant ‘Warrior Princess’, but I like the ears.” He tapped at his matching ones. “The cloak is a nice touch, but I hope you aren’t too chilly under there.”
It was a typical October evening and Malibu was not experiencing a freak cold spell. Cordelia’s eyes slid toward Angel who regarded her with a glowering expression. His eyes raked down over the cloak lingering in the places where it clung to her curves. For someone without x-ray vision he was doing a pretty good job of noticing places where the thin cloak draped across an underlying material and where it didn’t.
“Maybe we should head inside,” Cordelia’s constricted throat caused her voice to crack. “See you later, David?”
“Check out the Howling Hall. Great buffet. My favorite is the Dragon's Blood Punch. We’ll hang later.”
Cordelia took off on a power walk for the front entrance. “So that’s a hobbit.”
The guys caught up with her when she was stopped at the large castle gate that served as the entryway into the house. They noted a couple of security guards doubling as barbarian warriors standing nearby. A buxom woman in her late forties wearing a peasant dress and a bouffant cap greeted them as they entered.
“Welcome to the castle. I am Miss Matilda. Your invitation please.”
Cordelia pointed a thumb in Wesley’s direction. He plucked it from the Book of Magic. “Right here.”
The woman pulled out a sleek bar scanner from behind her desk and scanned the small code on the back of the invitation. Glancing at the information on her screen, her eyes widened and she looked at them with new respect. “You’re Mr. Nabbit’s special guests.”
Cordelia had made that part up about being David’s guests of honor. To find out that it was true gave her even more leverage to make sure Angel stayed at the party. If he thought she didn’t know about his plan to ditch them in the middle of all of this he was kidding himself.
The woman gestured for them to come inside. “A guide will take you to the Howling Hall. From there you may wander the castle as you will. Restricted areas are clearly marked. Mr. Nabbit will join you a little later in the dungeon.”
Cordelia leaned closer to Wesley. “She said dungeon, right?”
“I believe she did.”
“Nerd code word for party room?”
Angel tucked his hand under her elbow and led her inside. “Let’s go find out.”
“One moment, Princess,” the woman halted her in her tracks. “I also serve as the cloakroom attendant. Might I take yours for the evening?”
An abrasive little hum rolled around the back of Cordelia’s throat.
“Don’t pressure me. I’m thinking.”
There were other guests lining up behind them, so Miss Matilda asked one of the security barbarians to show them into a private room down the hall. “Return when you are ready to begin your adventure. The party awaits.”
The moment the door was closed behind them Angel and Wesley had her cornered. “What is going on here, Cordelia?” asked Wesley whose thick grey beard muffled the words. “You’re all out of sorts this evening.”
That was true enough. Cordelia fiddled with the silk tie closure of the cloak. “It’s my costume. I’m a little uncomfortable about you seeing some parts of it.”
“The parts that aren’t there.”
Angel remembered Nabbit commenting on the costume mix-up. Was this modesty—from Cordelia? Though some of her clothes were more revealing than others she had never to his knowledge dressed in an overtly provocative way.
“We’re all grown ups, Cordelia. I doubt that Nabbit’s costumers would knowingly make something for this party that couldn’t be seen in public.”
The hesitation had nothing to do with her appearance. Cordelia knew she looked hot and it didn’t embarrass her one iota. Male attention wasn’t exactly a bad thing in her book—until the males in question ended up being scrutinized by certain stick-in-the-mud coworkers suffering from a Big Brother Complex.
Overprotective much? Oh, yeah.
“Perhaps it would be better to keep the cloak on,” Wesley suggested as he thought of the graphic fantasy art he had seen. Though his curiosity was tingling he’d grown quite used to thinking of Cordelia as family rather than a romantic interest. “If the elf princess costume makes you uncomfortable why wear it?”
“Because I gave you a hard time about your costumes and I didn’t want to whine about mine.”
“So right now you’re…”
Whining? Cordelia bit her lip to stop herself from doing just that.
“Fine. If you two think you can handle it, so can I.” Flinging back the cloak she let it fall in a puddle on the floor at her feet.
Diaphanous fabric layered upon itself to form an intricate sarong with a peek-a-boo effect. A strapless top clung to her breasts being secured in place only by the folded material. Her belly was bare except for a smattering of glitter across her skin. A long swath of thin material completed the costume. Wrapped at an angle across her hip it covered a tiny thong bikini bottom, the lightweight material teasing as it whispered across her legs.
Cordelia’s gaze stayed focused on her stylish matching boots while she waited to see which one of them would go apeshit first.
And she waited.
Avoiding eye contact with Angel, she chose to check out Wesley’s reaction. Somehow that seemed like the lesser of two evils. His bug-eyed, slack-jawed stupor was kind of flattering even if it did make her want to giggle. Incoherent gibberish bubbled up when he tried to speak until Cordelia snapped her fingers at him demanding that he make sense.
Wesley gripped his Book of Magic tightly with one hand and slowly stroked his long fake beard with the other. “Well…ah…it’s very…exotic. Perhaps…perhaps you should avoid catching cold. Rather chilly in here, don’t you think?”
“Not really. You look kinda hot and bothered to me,” she joked.
His cheeks showing above the grey mustache and beard were rosy. “Certainly not.”
Cordelia glanced cautiously toward Angel, but he hadn’t moved a muscle or made a sound. Before she turned fully toward him Wesley commented on the necklace she wore. “Nice trinket. Part of the costume?”
“Just like your book and Angel’s sword.” Crafted from gold and inlaid dark green gems it was a genuine original design from Cordelia’s favorite jewelry store. Not that she could afford to shop there until fame and fortune came her way. “It’s supposed to be a magic amulet.”
The circular amulet nestled just above the cleavage created by the costume. Wesley blinked slowly as his gaze wavered from the necklace. He began to babble again only this time in a more constructive way by droning on about the mystical properties of crystals and gems. Instantly bored, Cordelia realized that Angel hadn’t said a word about her costume.
All this time he’d probably been working on his sermon about the evils of displaying too much skin in public. She could feel his eyes boring into her. Hairs raised and her heart tick-tocked in tingly anticipation.
“So what’s the verdict?”
Angel’s raw stare did crazy things to her equilibrium. All at once he looked incensed, savage, salacious. He never looked at her that way, eyes dark and penetrating, full of things he couldn’t have. It speared through her in an instant drawing a reaction that Cordelia never expected.
Blood pounded in her ears. Her throat constricted. Nipples tightened almost painfully. A slow burn licked at her belly as his tongue trailed across the seam of his lips.
Then she blinked.
In the space of a second Angel’s heated stare went flat, his face an aloof mask of indifference. “It’s just a costume, Cordelia,” he said with a hint of a bite.
Bewildered, Cordelia’s head was spinning. “So you think it’s perfectly respectable?”
Angel’s eyes dropped to the traces of glitter along her bare belly following along until they vanished beneath the fabric gathered around her hips. When he met her gaze again his expression was stone cold. "For an elf princess...wouldn't know." He shrugged and suggested they get going.
Convincing herself that she had imagined the whole mutual attraction thing Cordelia opted to keep the cloak on, but open around her shoulders. It kept the chill of off her backside where things were admittedly a little airy.
The Howling Hall continued the castle theme. A gilded throne sat empty on a raised dais overlooking several tall bar tables where costumed guests gathered in small groups. Most looked to be fighters, clerics, elves or mages while others dressed in ordinary medieval fashion.
A few exotic costumes were also in the mix. Wesley pointed out a Styrgean demon in the crowd. “Look at the fur, the wide-set fangs.” He carried a large halberd that was clearly made of plastic, not an authentic weapon.
A man dressed as a swashbuckler, wearing a feathered leather hat and carrying a rapier at his side, overheard him. “That, good sir, is a bugbear. Loathsome creature.”
“It doesn’t look like a bug or a bear to me,” Cordelia sighed already growing restless.
“Allow me to introduce myself.” The swashbuckler removed his hat and bowed. “Here you may call me Lord Dexter. The next time we meet it’ll be plain old Ralph Wexler. I’ll be the one driving David’s limo.”
Cordelia nudged Angel with her elbow and grinned as she mouthed the words ‘limo’, but he spoiled her fun by looking unimpressed.
“Miss Matilda asked me to show you around. Thanks again for what you did for the boss. He’s one of a kind.” They realized that Ralph knew all about David’s exploits at the demon brothel.
“Take care what you say,” he warned them. “Most of the guests tonight are just here for the D&D. They don’t know what’s really out there.”
Beneath the hum of conversation a dark orchestration played on a hidden speaker, its sound haunting. Puffs of dry ice clung low to the floor billowing around them as they walked toward the large buffet table dominated by a dragon ice sculpture.
The Halloween cuisine included items labeled: Dragon’s Blood Punch, Mummy’s Eyes, Roast Bugbear, Maggot Stew, and Hobgoblin’s Mud Pie.
“This is the just the common gaming room. Most guests are limited to this area, but select others have full access to the dungeon. Whenever you’re ready just take the elevator downstairs.”
He pointed to an elevator at the back of the room. The drape that normally covered it had been swept aside for the evening. Angel asked, “What’s ‘the dungeon’?
Their guide seemed surprised that they didn’t know. “David’s personal playground. It might be a little tame compared to what you three are used to. So I’m told.”
After explaining that several other rooms had been converted for the party, including one for dancing, he added, “One more thing. Everyone here is in full role-play mode. You should pretend to be what you’re wearing. Act it out. For example, my character Lord Dexter is skilled with the rapier. He’s an Errol Flynn type. Both a fighter and a ladies man.”
Angel rubbed at the tension bundling up in his neck. “We’re not here to play games.”
“It’s a party! Loosen up. Have a little fun.”
“Mr. Doom & Gloom here was born without the fun gene,” Cordelia explained with a teasing glint while noting Angel’s offended expression.
Standing close, she squeezed his hand, but instead of mollifying him her touch riled him up a notch. Angel leaned a little closer to warn her. “Remember what happened the last time I loosened up?”
“I remember chaining you to the bed.”
Ralph’s eyes opened wide. Thinking they were just joking around, he laughed, “You two are hilarious. This is great.”
“Perhaps we’ll just try the buffet for now.” Wesley attempted to get rid of him before Ralph said something he would regret.
Begging for just five minutes of their time he pleaded for just a little interaction. “It’ll be a blast.”
“Will you leave after that?” Angel wanted to know.
“Sure,” Ralph promised with a vehement nod of his head. “You can go mingle. Try it out again. Dance. Whatever. But don’t forget about the dungeon. That’s where the real fun is.”
Cordelia had a sneaking suspicion that she knew why Ralph Wexler got the job. He was a carbon copy of his boss. She whined, “This isn’t a party. It’s a convention for nerds.”
The moment she said it a hopeful light glinted in Angel’s eyes. She remembered that attending this party was supposed to be a way to get him to connect with the world. “Oh, to hell with it. This is just improvisation. Acting. I can do that.”
Ralph grinned so that his oily black mustache stretched out across his upper lip. “I figured you for the fun-loving type. Chains, huh? Kinky. Let’s show your friends how it’s done.”
“Just to set the scene,” Ralph told them, “Lord Dexter spots you at the local inn and decides he likes the looks of the elf wench.”
Before Wesley could suggest a different scenario, Angel had already growled, “I don’t think so.”
“Wait, we haven’t started yet.”
“Yes, we have.”
With a heavy gulp, Ralph nodded and tried to get back into character. Trying to think like a swashbuckling hero he called upon Lord Dexter’s accent to charm them. “Lucky friends. I see you travel with a beautiful slave girl.”
Ralph didn’t normally touch other players during the game, but he couldn’t resist trailing his index finger down Cordelia’s arm. She slapped his hand away. “Eww! Hey! Did he call me a slave girl?”
Nodding, Wesley took a step toward the buffet and helped himself to a small plate of Mummy’s Eyes. He had a feeling it was going to be better if he sat this one out.
Still looking at the soft skin he’d just touched, a lecherous little smile smeared across Ralph’s face. “I want her. Let me buy her for the night.”
Steel-jawed, Angel towered over the smaller man. “She’s not for sale.”
Wesley groaned and squinted his eyes, afraid to look.
Icily, Cordelia asked again, “Slave girl?”
The smarmy swashbuckler thought she belonged to Angel. No way. Try the other way around. Princess Cordelia needed Wesley the Wiseass and Mr. Muscles around as bodyguards. They’d be working for her. “Slave girl!”
Glowering darkly, Angel stepped even closer. “Go before I get angry.”
“This is you not being angry? I made a fair offer.” Ralph took a shaky step back and bumped into the wall only to be grabbed by the collar. Slowly lifted off the ground, he broke character long enough to admire Angel’s intimidation technique. “Wow! But you gotta wait to see what the dice tells you.”
Dropping the hat in his hand Ralph reached into his pocket to pull out an eight-sided dice. “Maybe it’s a 3 in 8 chance you need cash to get to your next destination. It’s all probabilities and outcomes.”
“There’s a distinct probability you won’t like the outcome if you ever lay a finger on Princess Cordelia again.”
Wesley let out a sigh as he realized Angel was actually playing along with the game and not actually considering snapping the swashbuckler’s neck.
“Princess?” Ralph’s eyes flitted over to Cordelia and then back again when Angel’s grip pressed down that much harder. "So...not a slave girl?"
“Obvious to anyone with eyes!” Cordelia huffed and told him he was a dumbass. “Elf royalty here!”
“Yes, it was.” Angel’s lip curled into a sneer.
Cordelia kicked at the whirling fog. Hissing, “I knew I needed a tiara. No wonder he thought I was a slave girl. This costume just screams Dance of the Seven Veils.”
“Only without most of the veils.” Wesley’s passing comment earned a bitter grunt. Turning serious, he told Angel, “Time to let him go. His five minutes are up.”
Dropping the man back to the floor, Angel couldn’t believe that the time had passed so quickly. “Already? I was just getting into it. This game has potential.”
Wesley gave him the unfortunate news: “Although this particular damsel-in-distress scenario likely appeals to your champion mentality D&D does not actually include the torture of the other players.”
But that was the fun part. “Was I just supposed to let him have her?”
“Certainly not without a roll of the dice,” Wesley said, amused by Cordelia’s outraged expression. Telling Angel, “In future, simply try to restrain yourself.”
He hadn’t used his full strength. Hadn’t vamped out on him. Or ripped him limb from limb for touching Cordelia. The man was barely bruised.
Decked out as a castle, the ground floor of the mansion was party central, albeit with gaming intermixed with the usual music, dancing, and mingling. They spent most of the first hour in the Howling Hall. Wesley enjoyed nibbling at the buffet even though it was a challenge with the beard. While Cordelia helped Angel ‘be mingly’ he tasked himself with intimidating other leering Lotharios.
“This is great, right?” Cordelia tried to stay positive considering that she practically forced Angel to come tonight.
Angel didn’t bother to answer. The look he gave her said it all.
“Okay, so I admit it’s not exactly what I thought it was going to be, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a good time.”
The glowering continued.
“Or you can stand around like a hulking mass of muscle and watch other people have a good time.”
Actually, he’d been hoping to find a dark, quiet place to sit around and do all of that. Before he could say so, a woman dressed in the simple robes of a cleric approached them. She and two other costumed guests had just entered the room and taken one of the nearby tables.
“We have need of a warrior to take us to Vandathia,” she opened already in full roll-playing mode. “The road is dangerous. Will you join us?”
Angel looked at Cordelia who grabbed him by the arm and made a move toward their table. “It’ll be good for him. We’ll try it.”
The cleric looked down her beakish nose at Cordelia. Speaking directly to Angel she clarified her offer. “Just you. There is no room for the elf wench in our wagon.”
“What!” Incensed at being excluded and for the wench comment, Cordelia forgot all about giving Angel the opportunity to mingle. “Go find your own warrior. This one’s mine.”
Leaving in a huff, the woman returned to her table just as Wesley joined them. Little crumbs clung to the hairs of his grey beard. “What now?”
“We’ve had enough mingling,” Angel sent Cordelia a wry smile. “We should check out the lower level. Nabbit clearly wants us to see it before we leave.”
“Keeping the client happy or are you actually curious? That’s the dungeon for David’s live Dungeons and Dragons scenarios.”
“Let’s go find the dragon.” Angel motioned toward the elevator.
Cordelia felt his hand brush along her cloak at the small of her back. Long enough to move her in that direction and to keep her at his side. “This is starting to sound less and less like a party and more like work.”
A security barbarian guarded the elevator. Only guests with a special pass code were able to enter. Having received it from Miss Matilda at the front gate they were given permission to continue.
“Beware, travelers,” the guard delivered his lines before the elevator doors closed, “the way ahead is not without danger. A monster has been attacking villages beyond the castle. It lives in these tunnels. Go forth if you dare.”
“We dare,” quipped Cordelia. “Press the button already.”
The ride down took only a minute and the door opened up into a completely different setting. The décor upstairs included partial sets intermixed with traditional Halloween designs. This was a whole other world.
Every detail of their surroundings looked genuine from the stone walls, mortar and the mossy plants growing in the cracks to the environment itself. An advanced sound system piped in random noises: odd creaks, a low rumble in the distance. Even the temperature was different here, the air hot, thicker, more primordial.
“Creepy.” Cordelia peered ahead into the dimly lit corridor. It came in through cracks in the ceiling behind them mimicking daylight. “David actually spent money on this?”
Angel thought it had potential as an underground training facility.
“We already have that. It’s called the sewers.” Cordelia sniffed the air. “At least this doesn’t smell like the sewers.”
After a short distance they reached a barrier. A door made of thick timber blocked the way ahead. Angel grabbed the handle, but found it wouldn’t budge. “It’s locked. We didn’t miss a turn. This is the only way in.”
“Maybe it’s a sign we should go back upstairs. Game over.”
Cordelia’s words got Wesley thinking. “You’ve got it. We’re not thinking like gamers. This obstacle is merely a test of our skills.”
“Let me handle this,” Angel figured he could make quick work of it. Shouldering the door he expected it to give way. He heard the beams creaking as he pushed harder, but it barely budged.
Stepping back, Angel looked at the door with some respect and got ready to kick it down. “Wait!” Wesley stopped him. “I’m betting those timbers are actually reinforced with steel. Let me try.”
“If Angel couldn’t do it, Skin & Bones, how are you going to get in?”
Wesley grinned and tapped the leather binding of his Book of Magic. “You forget that wizards and elves like us posses magical knowledge. We can unlock that door where brute strength cannot.”
Flipping through the pages of the book, Wesley pretended to look for a spell to allow them to pass through the door. “When I have more time I will have to make a study of this book. It’s very well made. The spells appear to be combinations of Latin and old English. Quite amusing.”
The delay as Wesley waffled over the book irked Cordelia whose growing impatience was apparent to both of them. “You should let Angel break it down.”
“Destruction of our client’s property isn’t going to garner us any referrals.” Wesley countered.
Standing around this warm, dark and creepy dungeon wasn’t exactly her idea of fun. The party rooms upstairs might be full of costumed nerds, but it was preferable to lurking around here. “Hurry it up. The sooner we get in the sooner we can go back upstairs.”
“Be patient. I am searching for the right spell.”
“Stuff your hocus pocus. I want it OPEN.”
No sooner than the word passed her lips than a heavy ka-chunk sounded and the door creaked open. Wesley pointed toward the red glow beyond the door. “Watch out! Someone’s coming through.”
Angel scented the air. People had passed this way, but there was no sign of anyone there now. “There’s nobody there.” He moved forward beyond the threshold of the door.
Shuddering, Cordelia looked around for cameras. “Now I know this place is creepy. There’s someone out there watching us. Pushing buttons. Gotta be.”
“Yes,” Wesley agreed. “Waiting for that magic word.”
“I know you’re out there!”
Her voice echoed into the darkness without response. Turning to tell Wesley that this was just a waste of their time she found him scowling at her. “What?”
“That wasn’t very sporting.”
“Saying the magic word? I didn’t know OPEN was the magic word. It wasn’t even a hard one.”
Wesley slammed his book closed. “Yes. A simple, but effective spell that I was about to cast—with more panache I might add.”
“Don’t be a baby. We’re in.”
When she moved to follow Angel he made a hop to fall into step beside her. “But I’m the wizard.”
“Elf Princesses trump old fart Wizards any day of the week,” she smirked. “Just leave the doors to me.”
Glowering, Wesley muttered, “Magical knockers?”
The inevitable pulse of doom gripped him as she whirled around, fury blazing in her eyes, lips pinched together tightly. He shrunk back like a bug about to be squashed, realizing with a horrified gasp that he’d commented on certain unmentionable attributes.
Red-faced, he fumbled over an apology. “C-Cordelia…”
The caverns wound around upon themselves creating a maze of stone corridors. Cordelia followed along behind Angel as he took great interest in exploring every nook and cranny. He paused as they reached a diverging path looking in one direction and then the other, brow furrowing.
“Are we lost?”
Cordelia had never known Angel to get lost. He could navigate across Los Angeles above or below ground without losing his way. She hadn’t exactly been paying much attention. Not with the unobstructed view of Angel’s snug leather pants.
“No, I can follow our trail back,” he said confidently. “Though it might take a while. This maze probably leads to an exit or the way back to the elevator.”
So far they hadn’t found anybody else in the tunnels. “If there’s a party down here David hid it well.”
“Perhaps finding it is part of the challenge,” Wesley spoke up for the first time since his gaff back at the dungeon entrance. “The guard mentioned a monster. One we are supposed to vanquish, no doubt.”
Cordelia fell into step behind Angel again. “Is it too much to hope that we can vanquish it before I die of boredom?”
Drawing sword from scabbard with a quick motion, he pointed its tip toward a narrow passage of natural limestone. The grid of cut stone continued onward, but Angel took the slightly slippery trail of jagged rock, the torchlight gleaming off the uneven walls.
“There’s something down here,” the mysterious gravel tone to his voice caused a shiver to crawl along her skin. Cordelia knew that his vampire senses were picking something up. “I can hear it… breathing.”
“Surely there are no real demons around.” Wesley didn’t want to spoil Angel’s fun since that was a rare thing, but neither did he want him to skewer an unsuspecting actor playing the role of a dungeon monster.
Since Angel was convinced that there was something up ahead they were inclined to believe him. Cordelia watched him moving ahead of them, checking for danger, sniffing the air, as if he was hunting something real.
“You realize that we’re the only ones down here for you to save.”
Angel just grinned at her over his shoulder. “Now who’s sucking all the fun out of the party? There’s a monster to kill.”
Mildly amused, Cordelia had to give him some kudos for turning that one around to bite her. “Fine. You keep doing what you’re doing and so will I.” Her eyes strayed back down to the flexing gluts beneath the tight leather. “Um, looking for the way out.”
The torchlight spread out in a flickering red glow across the sand-colored stone. It chased back the shadows a few feet in front of them keeping the darkness at bay. A rustling sound caused them to pause.
“What was that?” Cordelia huddled closer to Angel as he lifted the torch higher giving them another foot or two of visibility.
The torch’s glow lit the way, but interfered with Angel’s vampire vision making it too bright to peer into the darkness beyond the shadows.
They all heard it this time.
A labored sound, muffled and unidentifiable.
Air moving heavily.
“That must be our monster,” Wesley eagerly peered over Angel’s other shoulder trying to get a glimpse of it.
The darkness shifted with movement barely detectable to their eyes. They moved forward together and at their first step something crunched beneath their feet.
Pine needles and stripped tree branches.
It was a nest.
From the deepest black a pair of eyes opened gleaming yellow and green. A horrible roar sounded causing the ground cover to shift. Angel brandished his sword in a high arc waiting for the attack. The moment it made a move he knew everything he needed to know about the beast.
“It’s a machine!”
He watched its crested head rising up toward the ceiling; the elongated neck giving away the fact their monster was a dragon, albeit a small one. The bulk of its body lay in an adjoining corridor where the control mechanisms were hidden.
“Do I scream now or wait for it to attack?” snorted Cordelia. She figured she could give the special effects guy a few tips.
“Actually,” Angel told her while handing her the torch, “I need you to lure it out into the open.”
Cordelia glanced at the mechanical monster again. Hello, it was just a hunk of very expensive junk. “What if it’s immune to my charms?”
Angel half-mumbled, “Not a chance,” keeping his eyes focused on their foe.
Maybe he’d hit his head on a stalactite because it sure sounded like Angel was going to let this whole game scenario play out. Even Wesley looked certifiable as he flipped through pages in the Book of Magic.
“You two hold it off while I find an appropriate spell.” Wesley’s head shot up as he sternly added, “And, Cordelia, let me do it this time.”
With a disgruntled sigh Cordelia plodded up to the mechanical beast reluctantly playing along. She waved the torch around to get its attention. This was kind of like the door—there had to be someone real pulling the strings.
“Delectable elf princess here,” she said with a singsong. “Good for a nice snack.”
Wesley finally found something in the Book of Magic that worked for him. It didn’t sound like Latin. Wesley the Wonderful Wizard was probably pretending to be all magical and cool. The contents of that book could’ve been a translation of David Nabbit’s favorite recipe as far as Cordelia knew.
Except it wasn’t.
Something was wrong. She felt it the moment Wesley finished his incantation.
The air felt thick, hot, permeated with energy. Quickly turning to look at Wesley, she saw a bluish aura surrounding him.
Before she could call out his name, his eyes went wide, realizing then that whatever he had said involved a real spell. The mystical light channeled through his body rapidly pulsing outward.
The beast roared loudly.
It’s mechanical body swayed dangerously close to Cordelia who shrieked as the wave from the energy blast hit. One of the larger branches rolled beneath her feet as she tried to catch her balance sending her tumbling down onto a layer of pine needles.
Angel stumbled back a few steps, but was still on his feet when he saw her hit the floor. The heavy torch fell from her hand crashing down into the dry ground cover setting it ablaze.
She wasn't moving.
He felt his legs going numb with each step forward as he rushed to save her from the spreading fire. Every inch was a struggle, his head dizzy, his eyesight blurring, but he was determined to reach her.
The flames caught the edge of her cloak on fire.
Pure fear—of not getting there, of losing her—gave way to rage. It clawed its way to the surface taking Angel’s human visage with it. Feeling a fraction stronger he leapt across the flickering wall of fire dividing them.
“Cordy!” The sound echoed in his ears as he ripped the burning cloak away. He cradled her cheek in his hand as he tried to focus on her face, feeling a moment of self-doubt.
What if he couldn’t save her?
Using every last ounce of strength and coordination he possessed to gather her into his arms, Angel pulled her close and turned away from the blazing fire just as the world started to white out.
One step forward and he was able to shake off the grip of unconsciousness to take another.
Two steps and he could no longer feel the fire licking at his heels.
Three and the ground came up to meet them.
It skittered in the darkness. Pitter-patter. A tiny sound barely detectable, but Angel heard it, focusing on that distant noise, as it got louder, closer.
A warm body draped across his. Cordelia. He knew her instantly even before he was fully conscious. Breathing slow and even. The satisfaction of saving her unwound itself in his mind enticing him to awaken. Vocah had put her through so much that he couldn’t stand the thought of something else harming her.
Angel opened his eyes. Something had changed. He felt it in his bones. Smelled it. The world around them was different, no longer a construct of artificial stone. Dank earth, vegetation, and an unfamiliar stench permeated the air.
He sensed no immediate danger except for the consistent pitter-patter skittering their way. Time enough to take care of Cordelia and to check on Wesley. He recalled seeing Wesley standing at the edge of the nest pretending to cast a spell against their mechanical foe. That’s when something had gone wrong.
Somehow, the magic turned out to be real.
His hands moved to support Cordelia’s head and back as he moved her into a supine position beside him. Still unconscious, her lashes brushed her cheeks, her face soft and serene. This was the quietest he’d ever seen her.
Lying beside her, Angel tried to waken her by softly patting her cheek, but nothing happened. He assumed whatever knocked them out might affect a human a lot longer than it did a vampire. It was time to let her go for the moment. The skittering sound was getting close now. It was almost upon them.
Pitter-pat, pitter-pitter-pat, pitter-pat.
Angel raised his head to peer into the darkened tunnel ahead. The mechanical beast was nowhere to be seen. An empty corridor stretched out in front of them leading up and out of the caverns. With the light behind him he was able to focus his vision on the outline of something very small moving in the dark.
Leaving the warmth of Cordelia’s side, he rolled into a crouched position intentionally keeping low to the ground to keep his silhouette from standing out against the light. He kept his eyes on the figure ahead.
At first, he thought it was a child. No more than three feet in height, he wore leather and a bright purple cape. Bare feet far too large for the small body accounted for the sound he’d heard.
The little creature stepped into the light of the chamber. Angel’s eyes grew large with recognition. The face was unmistakable. This confirmed his fears. Wesley’s spell had gone terribly wrong. That, or he was still unconscious and having an extremely disturbing dream.
Just to prove he wasn’t seeing things, Angel asked his identity. “David Nabbit?”
“No, no, you have it backwards. Divad Tibban at your service,” said the half-sized creature with David’s face. His hairy feet were proportionally twice as large as his small body.
Staring, Angel slowly realized that he was looking at a Halfling. It wasn’t just their surroundings that had changed, but the people, too. A sense of dread curdled in his belly. He looked back at Cordelia, surprised that he hadn’t noticed that it was no longer her perfume giving off that floral scent. It had become part of her. The ears that she’d carefully pasted on were now real.
Wesley had better hope she didn’t notice before he found a way to fix things. Angel bent moved back to her side, his hand cupping her cheek. He felt her breath whisper across his thumb for an instant before moving away from her mouth.
“We must awaken our friends before Caeruleus returns.”
Divad nodded. “He is young. Something caused him to flee the caverns and take to flight. I knew this was your only chance of escape. Come, come we must hurry!”
There wasn’t a damn thing Angel could do about rousing Cordelia and Wesley. Time itself was their only cure, but he wondered just how much time they needed. Carrying them out at the same time was impossible. Nor would he leave one behind with a Halfling as a safeguard against a dragon attack.
Angel brought them back to the narrow formation between the stone corridors knowing the dragon couldn’t physically squeeze in. “They should be safe here until I can deal with the dragon,” he said, unsheathing his sword again.
“That won’t save you from Caeruleus’ foul breath,” Divad warned him. “It is poison to any who encounter it.”
“I’ll take that chance.” Angel instructed Divad to wait with them while he went back to the tunnel entrance.
If the dragon returned he planned to take it out before it became a threat to the others.
Ten minutes passed by while Angel explored the tunnel that led up to the surface. There was no sign of the dragon. He wondered if this was the only entrance. It was that thought that brought him back down to the chamber below in time to hear Cordelia let out a bloodcurdling shriek.
Sword in hand Angel bolted through the tunnel as fast as he could. If the dragon hadn’t heard that chances were that any other creatures living in these caverns did.
Another, lower cry sounded from Wesley moments later, but it was followed by a tiny voice that explained it all. “Hello, my friends. Divad Tibban at your service as always. We must flee before the dragon returns.”
Angel arrived just in time to see Cordelia reach out to yank Wesley’s fake beard as she blamed him for what had happened. “You did this, didn’t you?”
“OW! Don’t tug on my beard. That…that feels surprisingly attached to my face!” His jaw dropping, Wesley gave it a few experimental tugs. “It won’t come off. Oh, dear God! Do you know what this means?”
Cordelia’s hands flew up to her ears. “The words ‘I’m gonna strangle you with that beard’ come to mind. How did you do this? And where’s Angel?”
“I’m right here.”
He could see the relief on her face. It was the same thing he felt at seeing her awake and unharmed.
“This Book of Magic appears to have real power.” Wesley took it from Divad who had carried it from the main chamber. “The manuscript is copied, but the contents must be genuine.”
“So say what you said before and fix this.”
Wesley cautioned her, “I’m afraid it’s not that simple, Cordelia.”
Opening the book to the section where he had found the spell, he scanned the text. “These words! I recognize some of them now. If only I had the proper references I could be certain.”
Putting a hold on further conjecture, Angel told them, “Our first priority has to be to get out of this dungeon.”
There was no further hesitation. They followed him out of the narrow fissure and into the main tunnel. Cordelia kept looking back at David Nabbit who was scurrying along just to keep up.
“I don’t suppose this nightmare has an off switch.”
The Halfling led them out of the tunnels. He told them of a small village on the other side of the woods. “The inn is near. We can find food and a room for the night.”
Wesley liked the idea. “I need time to study and a quiet place to do it.”
Divad shook his head. “Always the studying. Greybeard knows no merriment, or rest. I would not want to be a wizard.”
He hopped along keeping pace with her. “So how come you don’t remember who you are?”
“I am Divad Tibban,” he said, quirking his head questioningly.
Cordelia rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I got that. So who do you think I am?”
A cherubic little smile rounded out his cheeks, “Princess Cordelia of the sunny dale,” as if she was a favorite topic.
Divad nodded dreamily. “An idyllic spot near the mountains full of forests and rivers—and elves.”
Idyllic wasn’t a word she associated with Hellmouth central. “This little fantasy world sounds perfect—except for the big, freaking dragon.”
“No world is perfect, princess,” he said with all seriousness. “You will find monsters aplenty among the dales, but there is much to be seen.”
“Y’know, this isn’t the most touristy spot. I think I prefer home.”
Divad chuckled. “Keep that to yourself. Should Lord Angel hear it he will be vexed. He did not want you to come on this journey.”
That sounded familiar. “So what’s their story?”
“Greybeard and Angel?” Another perplexed look appeared. “They protect you. They will not rest until their mission is complete. It is a long journey and they are to convey you safely home.”
“So you’re saying I’m the Damsel in Distress?” Cordelia’s mouth curled up in disgust, commenting sarcastically, “Terrific. So what is your part of this mission?”
Divad skipped beside her. “I am your friend.”
Unlike the empty tunnel system, the village was full of people they recognized from the party, except now they had become what their costumes designated them to be. Adventurers, clerics, and medieval commoners: everyone was in full character mode.
No one remembered the real world.
Wesley explained their intact memories as close proximity to the event. “This could all be part of a mass hallucination.”
“So we could just snap out of this in a couple of hours?” Cordelia asked with more doubt than hope in her voice.
The details revealed by his preternatural senses led Angel to believe this place was completely real. It couldn’t be an illusion.
Though, he had to admit, this could be any village pulled from a long ago memory.
Wesley had other theories that were even more unsettling than a mere hallucination. “Alternatively, we could’ve been physically transported to another dimension where the game is quite real. Or perhaps our own reality changed.”
All Angel wanted to know was: “Can the spell be reversed?”
A nervous gulp suggested that Wesley wasn’t certain. “Perhaps I should start reading along the way.”
Cordelia quipped, “Ya think?”
At the Sign of the Prancing Pony they rented the last available room. The common room was full of noisy customers drinking ale and talking about the latest dragon sighting or the new visitors in town.
Though he didn’t like the way everyone was staring at Cordelia, Angel’s first priority was getting Wesley settled for the rest of the evening. There was no way he could concentrate on research in this hullabaloo. What he needed was some peace and quiet.
“Go on upstairs. We’ll have the innkeeper send up a meal. I’ll see what I can find out about the dragon.”
Wesley warned him that the odds of failure were high. “Without proper references I can’t guarantee the translations. This book is a hodgepodge of several sources with different root languages.”
“You can do it!” Cordelia gave Wesley a big smile and a pep talk while shooing him towards the stairs.
Angel knew how complex magical spells could be. Though he had grown more confident of Wesley’s translation ability, his work on the Shanshu prophesy scroll had proven that he wasn’t infallible.
“Do your best. That’s all we can ask.”
With a determined nod, Wesley headed up to their rented room. As soon as he disappeared around the corner, Cordelia turned to Angel muttering, “We are so screwed.”
They took a table near the back wall. Angel leaned against it, one booted foot resting on the end of the bench. From here he had a view of the whole room and his gaze flicked from one person to another in the crowd. Wary of trouble, watching for anything out of the ordinary his attention remained divided between the inn and the world beyond.
The security guard back at David Nabbit’s mansion mentioned that the monster from the tunnels was harassing the villages. It was possible that the dragon would bring the hunt to them.
The innkeeper, a rotund bald man with a curling grey moustache, arrived with a plate of meat, bread and cheese setting them on the table in front of Cordelia and Divad. He also provided a bottle of wine and three smooth wooden cups.
While he was there Angel asked him about the dragon wanting details about its abilities and weaknesses.
“Is that why you’re here? An adventurer looking for treasure.” The innkeeper dipped his head making his jowls double up. A woeful warning followed, “Caeruleus will be the death of you.”
“I’m hard to kill.”
“So is the dragon. Other warriors have entered the mountain tunnels only to be devoured.”
“Angel’s not like other warriors,” Cordelia said confidently. “He’s killed demons way tougher than some scaly lizard. That dragon is as good as dead.”
Though grateful for the endorsement, Angel wasn’t certain that he wanted the whole village depending upon him to kill a dragon. Going after the dragon might not be as simple as walking into the tunnels with his sword. Although he had to admit to himself that he was intrigued. After all, what were the odds of ever getting to fight a dragon again?
Assuming that doing so was even necessary. With any luck Wesley might emerge from his studies with the answer to their problems and reverse the spell. Considering the kind of luck that got them here in the first place it was more likely that everyone in the village would be eaten before that happened.
“I know little that will help you on your quest. Caeruleus came here nearly ten years ago and built his lair in the deepest dungeon of the old castle ruins. The tunnels once used to travel to the elfin lands beyond the mountain are overrun with bugbears, orcs and other creatures summoned to his bidding. He hunts in the wildwood near our village and when the hunting there is scarce to be found he turns upon us.”
Cordelia picked at the half loaf of bread pulling off tiny bites as she listened. Back in the dungeon she hadn’t gotten a good look at the mechanical dragon rigged up for David Nabbit’s amusement. “What’s this dragon look like? Are we talking traditional Puff green, Chinese red or Barney purple?”
Since Cordelia was making more progress with her questions, Angel kept a tight reign on his desire to pluck out the innkeeper’s wandering eyeballs. They hadn’t strayed from her cleavage since he walked up to their table.
Judging by the name, Angel guessed that Caeruleus was a green dragon. He’d read about dragons, but this world wasn’t strictly based on Earthly legends. It was part pure fantasy game. They needed to glean all possible details from the innkeeper and hope that Wesley knew enough to fill in the rest.
“Caeruleus’ scales, crests and wings are the color of the spring leaves. His underbelly is saffron yellow. The eyes—they are like emeralds—cold and merciless.”
Angel found that particular detail interesting. “You’ve looked the dragon in the eye and lived to tell?”
He hung his head in shame. “Only because I ran. He came for one of the cows. I saw his fangs dripping red with blood as he tore flesh from bone. Then he turned that evil stare upon me and asked if I wanted to be next.”
Trying to tune out the mention of fangs and dripping blood, Angel realized he’d said that that dragon could speak. “It talked to you?” That was definitely going to be on his list for Wesley.
Talking dragons. Chock that up as something new.
The innkeeper confirmed it. He could offer them no other information. Only a final warning: “Think again, friend, before pursuing Caeruleus. It will be your doom.”
Angel kept his eye on him as he walked away. He was stopped by a rowdy bunch of drunkards who’d been staring at Cordelia ever since she’d walked into the inn. Their whistles and catcalls had been harmless. He could smell the stench of too much ale on them from across the room.
He felt Cordelia’s soft hand curl around his wrist. “Will you sit down? Stop glaring at everyone. They’ll think you don’t like their little inn.”
“The inn is fine. It’s the locals I have a problem with.” Angel sat down on the bench next to her, but moved into position facing the crowd.
“You’re worried they might come after you with pitchforks?”
Divad interrupted with a loud belch having finally eaten his fill. “Why would they do that, princess?
“Nothing to worry your little head over.” Smiling, she poured the three of them some wine. “Divad, just in case I’m stuck in this princess routine forever, why don’t you tell me…more about me?”
Angel barely touched his wine wanting to keep a clear head. He listened as Cordelia inundated their Halfling companion with endless questions about her imaginary life as an Elf Princess. Divad was full of stories.
Unfortunately, they drew the attention of the young wastrels nearby. One of them left his chair and wandered closer. Angel sat unmoving in the shadows watching as he drew near. Another followed and a third.
The trio gathered together at the perfect angle to admire Cordelia’s rear view, which in this case was nearly literal. The thong beneath the diaphanous fabric concealed nothing when she was seated. Other than the horizontal fold of fabric that wound around to her breasts and the soft fan of silky hair it was almost as if she was naked.
Knowing that any comment he made directly to her would come back to bite him, Angel kept it to himself. There was nothing he could do about her clothes since that was all she had at the moment.
Part of him really wanted one of them to make a move, to say something he could use as an excuse to rip out their wagging tongues and break their scrawny necks. He waited patiently, knowing exactly where their heads were, having been there himself once upon a time.
They’d been crude all night, making elf jokes, undressing Cordelia with their eyes from their table across the common room, but they finally made the one mistake he wasn’t going to let go. They said it within earshot of Cordelia.
It was a base comment that immediately caught her attention.
Normally Angel would enjoy watching as Cordelia verbally ripped them to shreds.
He’d had it with those three. As drunk as they were all it took to get them to fight was to stand up. Angel wasn’t out to kill them. It wasn’t even about teaching them a lesson they wouldn’t remember come morning.
There was a fight brewing inside him. He didn’t know what it was about. This place, maybe. Cordelia. The fact that he hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. There were a whole slew of maybes to blame.
Didn’t matter why, Angel decided as he felt the first punch connect. The pain arced from his jaw to his neck making him twist his head. He grinned as he turn back just in time to block a second blow. Three against one wasn’t a fair fight—not for them. Angel took out two by lifting them up at the same time and throwing them onto nearby tables.
“Angel, are you insane?”
He heard the question, but was a little too busy to respond. Wine bottles and cups of ale went sailing. A table leg broke under the sudden weight and toppled everything else. The two men lay unconscious, one on the floor, and the other on top of the other table.
“You bastard!” The third one grabbed a broken bottle from the floor.
“Stop this! Angel!” Cordelia’s anger was surprisingly directed at him. “These people are from the party. You’re beating the crap out of David’s guests!”
The last man didn’t seem to care that Cordelia had intervened on his behalf. He rushed at Angel only to receive a hard punch to the jaw that knocked him out instantly sending him crashing to the floor.
While Cordelia was pacing back and forth haranguing him for his behavior at what was still technically the party of an important client, Angel made his apologies to the innkeeper. It seemed the destruction of property was an underrated event in these parts as long as someone paid the bill.
Divad tugged sharply on the tall man’s pants leg until he looked down at him. “I’m the money! All negotiations go through me.”
He broke out a sack of coins from his vest pocket.
Angel crouched down give Divad one further set of instructions. The two walked off toward the kitchen and he turned back to face Cordelia who immediately demanded, “What the hell was that all about?”
Angel shrugged thinking it was obvious. “You heard them.”
“They were drunk.”
“They shouldn’t have said what they did about you.”
Cordelia scoffed and rolled her eyes. “What do I care about some deluded elf fantasy?”
If they stayed here long enough she would have to start caring about it.
“This is no time to pick fights,” she censured him and started to check out his injuries one by one. Soft fingers slid over his skin leaving warmth trailing behind. Angel held perfectly still soaking up the sensations.
There were a few mild bruises scattered around his face and raw knuckles on one hand, but they didn’t amount to much. He didn’t feel like fighting anymore, especially with her. Not when his gaze kept straying to her lips, or to curves that he itched to explore.
What he wanted…the places his thoughts were taking him…Angel blamed this place, the fight, Cordelia’s skimpy costume, and his own misplaced desires. Not the demonic ones he curbed every day.
“I think it’s time you went upstairs.”
An obstinate tilt to her chin served as a warning. “You’re sending me to bed?”
That wasn’t exactly what he meant. Angel planned to patrol the village and do a quick sweep of the woods before sunrise. He did his best to explain his rationale. It wasn’t safe for her to be down here on her own.
“Oh. Okay, then. Just be careful out there. It’s not exactly L.A.”
He’d had been back for nearly half an hour when Cordelia stirred from her sleep to find him staring out the window. Angel had removed the leather braces, heavy vest of leather armor and his boots, now stood barefoot on the hardwood floor garbed only in his snug leather pants.
Moonlight beamed across his pale skin dancing in dappled hues across the planes of his chest. With his dark eyes fixed on the sky, he still managed to notice she was awake. “Go back to sleep.”
Naturally, she didn’t. “Don’t you think you should get some rest, too?”
There were only the two beds and four of them sharing a single room. Wesley was sprawled out across the narrow bed along other wall snoring resonantly as he lay at an odd angle. He had fallen asleep while studying. The book was still open next to him.
Divad was curled up in a chair with a large pillow serving as his mattress, his dirty bare feet sticking up over the arm of the chair.
There was no rest until they got out of this. “I don’t need it. Not for a while.”
She kept pressing him. “Don’t suppose you stopped at the local butcher’s shop while you were out. You’ll need to eat sometime.”
“We’ll get out of this before then. I can go a few days without it.”
Angel turned to give her some reassurance. As she sat up in bed, the sheet fell away to reveal she was wearing a loose white nightgown. It was apparently among the items that Divad had negotiated to buy from the innkeeper’s daughter. He tried to ignore the way it slipped to reveal the curve of her shoulder where the moonlight caressed her sparkling skin. And the teasing way the soft cascade of sleep-tossed hair clung to her throat, hiding and revealing it as she moved again.
He turned his eyes away until Cordelia spoke again. “And have the strength to fight that monster?” But he should’ve known she wouldn’t drop the subject.
Feeding was a subject he didn’t want to talk about right now. Especially since he was already beginning to feel the emptiness inside him. “I’ll deal with it if I have to.”
“Fine. Go hungry.”
Conscious of their sleeping companions, Angel let out a low snarl. “Unless you’re volunteering, Cordelia, I suggest you drop the subject.”
“No need to be grumpy about it,” she said not taking it seriously.
Patting the spot next to her on the bed she encouraged him to sit down. “If you won’t get some sleep, we can talk for a while.”
Angel wasn’t sure that was a good idea. This place seemed to put strange thoughts into his head. He’d thought that giving Cordelia something else to wear, not so overtly sexy, that it would get his mind out of the gutter. It wasn’t appropriate to have the kind of thoughts that had been flashing through his head tonight. Not about Cordelia, his seer, his secretary, his friend.
Somehow the off-the-shoulder sensible white gown was far more tantalizing than the revealing elf costume. A soft harrumph sounded followed by a little laugh as Cordelia caught him looking.
“Not exactly Victoria’s Secret, I know.” She told him that the halfling also bought some daytime clothes, which she pointed out, draped over a table. “They’re clean at least. No self-respecting elf princess would be caught dead in them, but these are special circumstances.”
The peasant blouse and dark red skirt were quite familiar. Standard barmaid clothes. Just like he remembered from the times he frequented inns like this one. Where he’d get drunk, get into a fight just for the hell of it, and sweet talk some pretty lass into raising her skirt for him.
He’d beat up those three idiots tonight for having those same type of thoughts. It was just the memories, Angel decided, stirring up things that had nothing to do with Cordelia. She held out her hand to him, still expecting him to join her on the bed.
Angel knew she wasn’t going to let it go. It would just cause an argument that would end up disturbing their friends. And Wesley needed all the rest he could get in order to be clear-minded for more research.
Taking her hand Angel let her pull him down to the mattress. The springs squeaked woefully at his added weight. Divad snarffled and turned onto his side.
“We might wake them.”
“Oh, please,” Cordelia rolled her eyes. “The noise from a howler beast wouldn’t wake them. Wesley is exhausted and David’s in a turkey coma, or at least he should be after everything he ate tonight.”
Angel could smell the fading remnants of roasted turkey. What Wesley had probably picked at while studying, the Halfling had apparently finished off. With a grin, Angel reminded her to pronounce the name correctly, “Divad Tibban.”
Cordelia smothered her giggles.
“Why would anyone want to be a hobbit? I mean, if you’re going to pretend to be a fantasy character, why not a big, strong hero type like you? From what I can tell he spends most of his time eating.”
Angel didn’t have an answer to that. He didn’t know much about hobbits.
“Do you know what David told me?”
That earned him a sharp stab with her elbow. “Stop it! He told me here in this world I’m the princess of a faraway land full of rivers, forests and mountains.”
She made a face, a rattling protest catching in her throat. “Sounds incredibly boring to me. No wonder my character left and is stuck out here in some village with you three. Where are the clubs, the shopping malls—the getaway vacations that don’t involve a monster trying to kill you? Being an elf princess isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
Angel lifted a finger to trace the pointed shell of flesh only to have his hand slapped away.
“Cute?” She hissed the word. “Don’t get me started.”
The long grey beard covered Wesley’s face when he moved his arm to rest over his head. The constant rattle of his snore suddenly stifled by the thick hair covering his airway suddenly forced him awake. For a moment he didn’t know where he was or why it was so hot. Being so nearsighted the world still looked blurry when he opened his eyes.
He noticed the beard immediately. It didn’t take perfect eyesight for that. Swinging his legs off the bed, he reached for his glasses and squinted in the direction of the window where the morning light indirectly shone through the veils of cloth from the elf costume.
Wesley’s eyes squinted closed in protest as he let out a wide yawn and stretched his arms over his head. No rest for the weary. It had been a very short night. Now he had to get back to his study of the book.
Rubbing at the creak in his neck, Wesley opened his eyes only to let out a strangled gasp as he caught sight of Cordelia and Angel curled up together in the other bed. It was quite an intimate picture, unsettling, and far more disturbing than it would have been if Angel weren’t a cursed vampire.
Cordelia’s head was tucked into Angel’s shoulder, her cheek pressing against his bare chest, hand splayed out across his belly. She was cuddled up against his side with Angel’s arm around her as they shared the one pillow, his face buried in her hair. It was a relief to see that the vampire’s pants were still on, not that Wesley considered anything untoward had happened between them.
They just looked perfectly at ease with each other. The long nightgown had twisted up past Cordelia’s knee, her shapely leg tucked between his. Wesley’s shocked gaze followed the length of her exposed calf right down to her glittering toenails before heading back up again toward their faces.
Once there, he saw Angel’s dark eyes focused on him, looking anything but guilty. It was almost territorial, protective, and carried a warning. Wesley slowly rose up to his feet, but he had forgotten the book. It tumbled to the floor.
The noise startled Divad, who woke up long enough to look around before turning to the other side, rapidly falling asleep again. Cordelia simply shifted in her sleep, her hand slipping higher on Angel’s chest closer to her face.
“I-I…” Wesley trailed off not quite knowing where to begin.
“Let her sleep, Wes.”
Angel's eyes closed again. The conversation was over. Wesley sat back down on the edge of the bed observing them sleep. It fascinated him the way such an innocent thing such as sleep could draw a torrid picture. Frightening. A vampire feeding off the warmth of the trusting girl in his arms.
Unless it was something else even more worrisome and that notion surprised him. He hadn’t even considered it before. Making it something to think about. Talk to Angel about. Later.
There was still the matter of getting them out of here. Perhaps, once they were free of this spell, things would return to normal.
Once Cordelia awakened, rosy cheeked and rested, Angel immediately climbed out of the bed. They weren’t alone. He realized that during the course of the morning the trust he had built up with Wesley had taken a startling step backward.
When it came to Cordelia they were both protective of her, so he forgave Wesley for any thoughts he might have had that led him to stand watch over the two of them the rest of the morning. If that’s what he was doing. Then again, he might’ve simply been studying.
Angel censured himself for being unreasonably suspicious of his friend’s motivations. He sat on the side of the bed putting on his boots while Cordelia lay back against the pillow. He already missed the warmth of her soft curves.
A smile followed her lazy yawn. “What time is it?” Propping her head on her elbow, she looked toward the window.
“Just past noon,” Wesley guessed as he glanced out at the position of the sun. His voice dropped as he added, “You slept all morning.”
“We were up late. Talking.”
Wesley’s gaze slipped across to meet Angel’s. Yes, Angel was a renowned talker. It was impossible to shut him up. “I’m glad you both decided it was time to wake up. I may have an idea.”
“Good news on the going home front?” Cordelia asked perkily.
“Perhaps, but it won’t be easy. On the contrary, most likely quite dangerous.”
“So…the usual, then.” Angel finished with his boots and braces. He leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees as he focused on what Wesley had to say.
Cordelia sat up, which put her right behind Angel. She put one hand on his bare back as she leaned forward to make her point. “Big ass dragon! Not so usual. You’re not really saying that Angel has to—”
“Slay the dragon.”
Wesley’s confirmation made her gasp. Last night she’d told the innkeeper that Angel could do just that, completely confident in his abilities. That was before she shared the local man’s dragon tale with Wesley after she went upstairs for the night. The information was just enough to give him insight into what little knowledge he had retained over the course of the years about Dungeons and Dragons.
“This entire reality is based on an adventure fantasy,” he reminded them. “Players meet certain goals, triumph over the forces of evil, and they win.”
“Tonight, then,” Angel agreed to Wesley’s plan. Just the kind he liked: simple, easy, effective. “We win. We go home.”
Angel went into the mountain alone.
There had been protests.
Cordelia planned to rally the villagers having decided that it was time they all stood up to the monster and shared a little responsibility for defeating it. Plus, the more help the merrier.
“That’s just a set up to get somebody killed. The bugbears and orcs holed up in the mountain are the same ones from the party. With the villagers in the mix they’d just be slaughtering each other.”
Wesley had spent part of the day at the local magic shop looking for something with clear directions. He wasn’t about to use the Book of Magic again. Not without further study and a reliable translation tool. Barring that, he planned to borrow a sword.
Even Divad wanted to go and had enthusiastically brandished his dagger-sized sword in a display of fancy footwork. He also claimed to know a few spells.
“That’s not going to happen.” Angel made a command decision. “From what you’ve told me Caeruleus’ breath is made of toxic fumes. I’m not putting anyone else at risk while there is still a chance you’ll find another way home.”
His voice gruff, Wesley countered with, “You’re not immune to poisons, Angel. You are just as vulnerable to the dragon’s attack as the rest of us.”
No, he wasn’t.
The statistical information on green dragons that Wesley had provided gave him a fair idea of what to expect. “I’m faster than a human. I can strike before it sees me coming.”
“That’s what it will take. Don’t underestimate it. This creature is very nasty tempered and thoroughly evil. It won’t negotiate terms of surrender.”
Angel figured he and Caeruleus would understand each other just fine.
They accompanied him as far as the mountain entrance to the underground tunnels. “If the dragon gets out,” Angel warned them, “it will go straight for the village.”
The spells Wesley had prepared along with a trap rigged at the entrance might have a slight chance in the event that Angel was not able to slay it.
“Cordelia, Divad and I will stand ready!”
“This is a suicide mission,” Cordelia growled at him. Everything she had discovered made the margin for victory narrow. Every new fact about the dragon ratcheted up her fear another notch.
Angel was brave, strong, and liked the thrill of a good fight, but he wasn’t completely invulnerable. She didn’t want him going in there alone and the thought that he might not come out again made her stomach twist into queasy knots.
Storming up to him, she held onto his arms, her fingertips curling into his biceps as she tried to get him to see reason. “Maybe Wesley can find another way. That stupid book! He only had one night. You know he’ll find the answer. He always does.”
“Not this time, Cordelia. I have to go.”
It was driving her crazy, this feeling that Angel shouldn’t leave. That something bad was about to happen. Like she needed to hear Wesley tell them the odds sucked. It left her shaking.
Angel touched her. A hand on her waist, nothing more, but it sparked her to throw her arms around his neck and squeeze tight. Hesitant hands moved along her back, but he returned the hug and then for a moment seemed like he didn’t want to let her go.
Holding his head between her hands, Cordelia pulled back just enough for Angel to see the fear he already scented. He could taste her breath she was so close. “Don’t do anything stupid!”
The demand came just when Angel’s gaze dropped to the soft curve of her lips and for an instant contemplated pressing his mouth to hers. Don’t do anything stupid. They were the wrong words at the right time. Now they echoed harshly. Don’t do anything stupid.
Angel held onto her for another selfish moment with his forehead nuzzling hers. “I won’t,” he made a dual promise to her and to himself.
The soft harrumph coming from Wesley reminded him that it was time to go. Angel extracted himself from Cordelia's arms giving her hand a final squeeze. As he walked into the mountain entrance Angel heard her complaining to the little Halfling.
“This is the last time I ever go to one of your parties!”
Divad replied, “Your words confuse me, princess. Give it time. We will have cause to celebrate soon enough. All will be well.”
“We should be going with him. We could help! I have a lot of experience being the bait.”
For a moment Angel thought he was going to have to go back to stop her until he heard Wesley reminded her of the plan. The familiar sound of bickering carried on the air until he reached the lower chamber.
Somewhere down in the dark was the dragon’s lair.
Now he had to find it.
The caverns were different than the stone corridors laid out on a grid beneath David Nabbit’s mansion. Twists and turns opened up into the enormous space below the mountain. He let scents and sounds guide him deep into the dungeon.
Angel didn’t bother with a torch. He knew from before that there were places where the light seeped in from above. Scattered around the caverns were hanging braziers of glowing coals. They weren’t here for the benefit of the dragon.
The stench of soiled fur and rotting flesh gave away the location of the bugbears long before Angel caught sight of them. Old steps cut into the rock led up into what had to be the old castle ruins mentioned by the innkeeper. The bugbears were up there, chanting, beating on drums.
For their sake he hoped they remained where they were.
The cavern opened up from there into a great maw of limestone. He could barely detect the height of the natural ceiling above. Another set of narrow stone steps led down into the deep beyond the reach of his night vision.
The dragon’s scent was strongest here.
Silently, he descended along a hundred steps of stone to reach the bottom. The ever-strengthening scent of the dragon filled his nostrils. Angel could see its huge outline taking up a quarter of the cavern. The rest of the space was piled up with objects—the dragon’s hoard.
Angel tested his grip on the sword. He moved stealthily in ways only a vampire can on a tread as light as the air.
It was not sound that gave his location away.
“Why does one of the undead seek me out?” The words rasped despite the sheer magnitude of the voice.
Refusing to be lured into giving up his position by answering, Angel made a run for the far side of the room. A burst of speed put him in a position behind Caeruleus.
The dragon rose up on its legs, wings expanding upward, a roar designed to terrify filling the space around them. Unfazed, Angel leapt onto the beast’s back, raised his sword above his head, and thrust downward.
The hide was thicker than expected and covered by scales even harder than the steel of his blade. The tip broke off with the force of the attempt to pierce it leaving a jagged edge of metal.
Caeruleus shook him off like a rag doll tossed to the ground. He lashed out with his claws, but missed as Angel somersaulted back to his feet. A gutteral word emerged from the dragon’s throat.
A ball of fire shot upward toward the distant ceiling lighting up limestone columns and the stalactites hanging down like stone daggers. Angel cringed at the blazing light, his arm arcing up to cover his eyes, forehead rippling as his demon emerged.
The fireball dispersed, but the light remained to illuminate the cavern. Angel backed away into the deepest shadow he could find. He could feel the initial heat fading.
Their eyes met across the divide created by Caeruleus’ treasure hoard. The dragon chuckled. “Do you not enjoy the warmth of the SUNFIRE spell, vampire?”
Angel did not enjoy being toyed with. He spotted the broken sword lying on the cavern floor bathed in a pool of light. It was a fifty-fifty chance that the magic light wouldn’t burn him. Anything with the word sun in it didn’t sound like a good bet.
He just needed enough time to reach the sword.
A broken crate lay in pieces amongst the closest pile. Smashed open by the dragon at some time its lid had been knocked asunder. Angel grabbed it. Moving fast he held it above his head shielding himself from the light. Even so, it beamed through the slats scorching his arm.
Despite its size, the dragon moved just as fast, swiping with one of its front claws as Angel passed into its shadow. It knocked the ragged crate aside rending through the leather vest like it was paper to dig deep into the soft flesh of his abdomen.
Pain and the smell of blood only spurred Angel on. He gripped the sword hilt, looked over his shoulder as Caeruleus reared back its head to strike, and then circled hard and fast. The jagged edged sword arced upward into the dragon’s softer underbelly piercing its heart.
Caeruleus staggered in the throws of death. Its massive body crashed to the floor, torso, arms, wings and head causing the ground to quake with each impact. Knocked off his feet, Angel lay on the ground, shadowed by the hulking dragon, fighting for consciousness.
As the magical light began to dim at the same rate as the dragon’s fading life force, Angel noticed a cloud of green gas billowing out from its mouth and spreading across the limestone floor. He forced himself to move even though his body wanted to slide into the cold, dark grip of sleep.
The expanding cloud drifted higher, rising as it dispersed through the air.
Angel made it to the stairs, pausing long enough to glance upward at the long spiral of one hundred stone step. He held a hand against the torn leather vest using it as a splint to hold his flesh together. A little blood loss wasn’t unusual, but this was more than a little and he hadn’t eaten in almost two days.
Higher and higher he climbed trying to outpace the rising cloud of poisonous gas. He was twenty feet from the top of the stairs when it caught up with him. The poison gas seeped into his skin. Sudden, intense pain whipped through him. He roared with it unable to suppress the agony making his other injuries pale by comparison.
Sprawling forward onto the steps, Angel tried to channel the pain, use it to his own advantage. Keep him alert long enough to get back to Cordelia and Wesley. There was no telling how long it would take for the poison to reach its full effect.
Technically, it shouldn’t matter. Even through the pain and the fog of his thoughts Angel realized that by now, the dragon was dead.
Game over. He’d won.
So why had nothing changed? The spell should be broken.
Angel pushed himself to his feet. He headed toward the exit, one step at a time, the tunnel getting darker and darker ahead. Chanting and the noisy drumbeat continued in the castle ruins above. He passed the stone steps leading up to the castle as he walked back the way he came. Led more by instinct than his senses.
Until he stopped moving.
The way before him suddenly darkened to impenetrable black and the world dropped out from beneath him.
At first there was nothing but the distant sound of the drums echoing in the deep. A void of darkness surrounded him. He floated there in a sea of suffering.
One thought kept repeating.
One voice heard above the rhythmic beat and piercing through the fog that clouded his mind.
“Dammit, Wesley, I said I’m fine. It’s not like I’ve never had a vision before.”
Muffled voices. Familiar sounds. Closing in.
Pitter-patter. Pitter-pitter-patter. Pitter-patter.
“No, we’re not going back to the village for reinforcements! Angel’s dying! He’s in pain and he needs me. We have to go to him now!”
Dying? He’d done that before. It felt different this time, yet somehow all too familiar.
“There! Over there!”
Angel tried to open his eyes, but his body wasn’t responding.
“Cordelia, please! The bugbears will hear you,” Wesley hissed as they ran together down the shadowy corridor.
Reaching the bottom of the tunnel Cordelia found Angel lying prone in the center of the corridor. Her head pounded. It was only a shadow of what she’d felt from him in the vision. Nothing next to her need to get to him before it was too late.
“Help, me turn him over. God! Angel, can you hear me?”
There was no response. No outward sign of life.
Together they turned Angel onto his back. The extent of his wounds made them both gasp. Cordelia knew she should have expected it. The PTB never pulled any punches and this time was no exception.
“At least he wasn’t dusted,” Wesley gave her their one hopeful sign. “Given enough time Angel might heal. If we can get some blood in him.”
Cordelia’s hands trembled as she unbuckled the leather straps holding his armor in place. Still completely motionless, Angel’s body was covered in burns, bruises and one of the deepest wounds they had seen. It covered a much larger surface area than the one he’d gotten from Kate.
Half blinded by her tears Cordelia told Wesley, “The dragon got him just before it died. He’s been poisoned. I saw it in the vision.”
Divad caught up with them having followed as fast as his two over-sized feet could carry him. “He is near death, princess. You must hurry.”
The urgency in his voice was completely understandable. Cordelia felt the need to do something, but just what that was remained unclear. One of her tears streaked down her face and felt onto Angel’s mouth leaving a wet droplet on his pale lips. She wiped it away with her thumb, her hand moving up to cup his face.
“You’ve got to live, Angel. Don’t you dare die on me! Or else I swear I’ll kill you.”
More tears fell. Cordelia held onto him, bent over, her head pounding, heart breaking for reasons too numerous to count.
Swallowing down the lump of grief gathering in his throat, Wesley started to tell her it was time to prepare for the worst. If her actions were an attempt to get him to feed, it was clear that Angel was too far gone to manage it. Wesley knew that it was unlikely that their blood would cure him.
Nevertheless, Wesley was willing to give it a go. From his crouched position, he saw the halfling’s dagger and decided it would do nicely for the task.
No sooner had he started to roll up his sleeve than Wesley noticed a glow emanating between Cordelia and Angel. It was coming from the amulet around her neck and spread out to engulf them both in an aura of light.
Wesley jerked to his feet to stare down at them half expecting the light to turn Angel to dust, but it seemed to be healing him instead.
The blackened flesh on his arms became smooth, less red, and then healed completely. When he looked at the stomach wounds, Wesley saw they were closing up at a pace that outdid anything normal for a vampire.
The wounds were gone in moments.
Beneath her, Angel woke with a start. Cordelia was draped across him, her hands on his shoulders. Something was wrong. He felt a heavy tightness, a burning sensation in his chest he’d felt once before.
The sound of her name caused Cordelia to pull back just enough for him to see her face. Her eyes were completely white. A glow surrounded them centered on the gold and garnet amulet around her neck, but channeled through the connection of her hands against his skin.
Whatever magic was at work Angel knew it was affecting him. He realized his injuries were gone. She was attempting to heal him.
All of him.
Wesley started to sense something was wrong when Cordelia’s healing hands started to press Angel back down to the ground, preventing him in his weakened form from escaping her touch. But it was Divad who took action.
“Princess, no! Even you cannot bring him back from the dead.”
The small hobbit rushed forward launching himself at Cordelia with breakneck speed. He knocked her away from Angel severing the mystic connection between them.
It took several seconds for Cordelia to snap out of her trance. Angel was on his feet and looking at her like she’d been the one poisoned by the dragon. The details of the last few minutes were sketchy.
“What just happened? And why do I have a hobbit sitting on my chest?”
Angel grabbed Divad by the collar and set him on his feet. “I’m not really sure about that myself.”
“Cordelia cured you,” Wesley explained what he witnessed. “The amulet activated and she fell into some sort of trace.”
“Wow! That was a lot easier than patching you up,” Cordelia said as she fiddled with the gold chain. “I wonder if we can get one of these puppies at home. Guess it will just be a necklace again when we get back.”
Wesley realized that she remembered nothing that happened when she was in the trance. “You did more than just heal, Angel. I think…I think you tried to cure him.”
“Meaning the curse?” Cordelia’s scrunched expression softened slowly into wonder. Her eyes slid toward Angel, her tone unsteady. “Did it work?”
Angel rubbed at his chest remembering what he’d felt. “I don’t know.”
While they bickered about whether or not Angel should be able to instinctively tell if his curse was still active, Wesley finally realized that they were still down in the castle dungeon.
“The dragon’s death changed nothing. We’re still here. Everything should return to normal now that the quest is over.”
Divad grabbed a fistful of Wesley’s long wizard robes and tugged twice. “Our quest is to return Princess Cordelia home safely. Now the dragon is dead we can travel freely to the other side of the mountain.”
Surprisingly, the journey was not a long one. A large wooden door blocked their path at the end of the tunnel. It was locked. Angel didn’t bother to ask—he busted down the door with a powerful kick.
For one brief moment they saw the forested land of the elves stretching out as far as the eye could see. Then the world rushed in upon them, streaming light whirling in a kaleidoscope of colors.
They passed out.
The security barbarian nodded as they bolted out of the elevator, but Angel, Cordelia and Wesley barely noticed. After awakening together in the burnt husk of the dragon nest in David Nabbit’s fake dungeon, they weren’t going to take any chances.
On the way past the buffet Angel paused to stare at the dragon ice sculpture displayed on top of the table. Everything that had happened flashed through his head. Was any of it real, or was it just a mass hallucination as Wesley had suggested in one of his trio of theories?
Cordelia was back in her original elf costume, her unburned emerald cloak secured around her shoulders. No sign of dragon claws marked the leather vest he wore. Ears and beard were no longer permanent attachments.
That left Angel to wonder about their experiences. If nothing had changed, were any of the changes produced by Cordelia’s elf magic real? He didn’t have a clue. Hell, he didn’t even know if such magic was capable of affecting the curse.
“C’mon, Dragonslayer!” Cordelia slipped her hand into his and tried to pull him along. “I’m all partied out. Let’s go home.”
They found their host at the front door. He ran up to them immediately. “I remember it all! This was the best Halloween ever! I was really Divad Tibban. How cool is that! With the hobbit feet and everything.”
Wesley commented that he hoped it was the proximity issue that allowed David to remember their adventure. “If the rest of the guests start to remember their fantasy lives as bugbears and village innkeepers, we might have a bit of a problem.”
“You’re leaving now?” David asked gloomily. He instantly perked up and suggested, “We’ll have to hang out again sometime. That’s why I got you the costumes. You had a blast, right?”
Angel smiled. “Actually, I think I did. This was certainly a memorable night.”
“Thanks for the invite, sweetie, but next time you can come to our place,” Cordelia gave him a hug. “Hope you don’t mind, but I’ll be burning this costume. Except for the amulet, of course.”
“And I’ll be taking this with me for safekeeping,” Wesley tapped a finger to the Book of Magic.
David shrugged. “Sure. I bought a whole trunk of old books from an antique dealer last year. Thought it would add some authenticity to the game. I guess it did.”
Rooted to the spot, Wesley stuttered, asking, “A whole trunk of books like this?”
Angel clapped him on the shoulder. “It’s time to go home, Wesley.”
“Goodnight Divad—uh, David!” Waving with one hand, Cordelia grabbed Wesley’s elbow with the other and helped Angel steer him in the direction of the car.
Rolling up on the balls of his huge fake feet, David called out, “Happy Halloween!”
The Challenge by Samsom:
David Nabbit invites the AI gang to a Dungeons and Dragons Halloween party, where all the other costumed guests turn into their characters and the dangers are real. AI must find their way out of the castle, before the dragon finds them, or the other party guests burn them for being witches.